The spirit of rebuilding

September 11, 2001 was a day of tragedy. After the attack, Americans from across the country volunteered in the aftermath.

In the spirit of “paying it forward,” an organization called New York Says Thank You Foundation (NYSTYF) sends help to other communities struck by disaster. Each year, near the anniversary of the terrorist attack, the organization helps to rebuild communities affected by natural or human calamities.

One such disaster happened on May 4, 2007 when Greensburg, Kan., was hit by a tornado that ranked 5 — the highest ranking — on the National Weather Service’s EF Scale. The entire town was virtually destroyed and it became the focus of the foundation’s 2008 project.

But NYSTYF does not operate alone on just the manpower from NYC firefighters, Ground Zero construction workers, survivors and their family members directly impacted by 9/11. The group needs individual, civic and corporate volunteers from across the country.

Seeing an opportunity to fulfill a unique need, Lester Building Systems of Lester Prairie, Minn., decided to get involved with NYSTYF. As a large manufacturer of pre-engineered wood-frame buildings, the company provides sales and construction services “through a network of independent dealers and factory representatives in more than 30 states,” according to marketing manager Tom Borgman.

“The tornado was a high-profile disaster and so we were aware of the devastation when officials approached us about helping NYSTYF with a project,” Borgman relates.

Because the level of destruction in Greensburg was so high, it had been decided to start with a symbolic rebuilding project in the center of town.

“The people had been dreaming and hoping for a new multiple-use structure at the county fairgrounds, located on the north side of town,” Borgman explains. “Constructing a new Kiowa County Pavilion was a symbolic move that would serve as the centerpiece for the community. For a recovering community, it would serve as a central gathering place for countywide activities such as 4-H and civic events.”

Inspired by a photo of an old western-style barn that had been printed in a cowboy magazine, officials approached a Wichita architectural firm and then invited Lester Building Systems into the picture.

Once the design was finalized, Lester Building Systems filled up nearly six semi-trucks with material and delivered the 14,000-square-foot pavilion at a greatly reduced cost.

Before delivery, construction efforts needed to be coordinated. “One of our independent dealers, Brackney Construction and Supply in Hays, Kan., provided the project preparation and construction oversight,” Borgman reports. Brackney and Lester worked with the county — which was responsible for site preparation — and set 84 concrete columns, all before the main body of the volunteers arrived. K-Construction of Alta Vista, Kan., Triple B Construction of Clearwater, Kan., and SL Construction of Archie, Mo., also assisted with construction.

But organizing approximately 200 construction volunteers to build the pavilion was another matter.

“Many knew how to swing a hammer, but they weren’t necessarily familiar with our pre-engineered system,” Borgman explains. “We had to train them onsite, parcel them into work groups, and integrate them into the overall work flow.”

Efficient pre-planning helped the project to run smoothly, “but there are always unexpected challenges with any project,” Borgman explains. “We can’t control the weather — and three inches of rain fell in the space of two days. But even though the rain turned the site into a slough, the volunteers carried on. Everyone was emotionally invested in the project and wanted to do as much and work as long as they could,” Borgman continues.

Conditions ultimately prevented volunteers from completing the final framing and the work was later performed by Brackney Construction and Supply.

Although getting involved is not without sacrifice, the reward can be great.

“We all had an overwhelming sense of doing something that really mattered,” Borgman relates. “The project was symbolic to the whole state. We thanked our dealers profusely who took days away from their business and came from hours away. But in the end, they all thanked us for inviting them to be part of it.”

Although Lester Building Systems was motivated by altruism, Borgman says the company has benefited, too.

“Every employee involved took away something personally from the experience,” he notes. “From a company standpoint, if you set criteria for the charitable projects that you get involved, you’ll get all the positives you anticipated — and even more that you didn’t anticipate.”

Yet Borgman advises builders to do their homework before jumping in.

“It’s not always wise to respond to every request,” he advises. “You have to consider the size and nature of your company. All charitable projects are not always a good fit. The goal is to get involved on a proper scale that can be properly managed.”

But when giving back to communities is done right, everyone can be a winner.

“And besides, the public doesn’t always have the highest view of the construction industry,” Borgman points out. “Showing communities how builders can make a difference helps them and us.”

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