From her kitchen window last Sunday morning, Tawanda Miller peered out onto her north Minneapolis backyard and watched as eight volunteers sawed lumber and pounded hammers, building her a garage to replace the one that burned down last fall.
"I'm really grateful," said Miller. "Sometimes something bad happens. But in the end, it was something good."
After the fire, Miller, who had only partial insurance, was the victim of a construction swindle by a phony contractor who took about $6,600 from her as a partial payment to rebuild the garage. He disappeared with the money, leaving her with nothing but a concrete foundation.
Bill Manning, who sells employee benefits insurance and lives in Chanhassen, said he read about Miller's plight in the Star Tribune at the end of December.
So Manning, 50, consulted with his wife, Liz, and talked to some of his friends. He met with Miller and sent out an e-mail to friends ranging from old college classmates to members of an adult hockey league he plays in, asking if they'd be willing to help.
About 25 people responded. "For the most part, people said, 'This is a great thing. … I'll send you $100,' " said Manning. They raised about $7,000 to cover materials.
His friends also volunteered their time to help build the garage — among them, a software manager and a dentist.
Adam Vierthaler, 35, who works with Manning, was helping on Sunday to put roof rafters in place. "It's a good experience," he said. "I'm more likely to have a [computer] mouse in my hand than a hammer."
Joel Johnson, 50, a residential building contractor, also offered to help.
"I do a lot of work for people who have money," Johnson said after climbing off a construction ladder. "It's kind of refreshing to do this for someone who doesn't."
Among those pitching in last weekend was Eric Weatherman, 60, who is a site supervisor for Habitat for Humanity but was volunteering on his own time. "Our next step is to see if I can find a volunteer electrician because the garage never had electricity," he said.
Weatherman brought along his daughter, Sarah, 24, who was also hard at work on Sunday. "It's a great group of people who all have this common mind-set — solidarity," she said.
Miller's garage burned down in October. The fire also damaged some of the house siding. The suspect was a juvenile who has been in trouble with authorities, but police have lacked sufficient evidence to charge him.
Miller, 44, is a nursing assistant who works two jobs and has two children living at home. She had only limited insurance, having let most of it lapse when she was between jobs.
On the advice of a friend who said cheaper labor was available in the South, she advertised on Craigslist in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a man called, claiming to be Mike Chambers of Chambers Construction. He offered to rebuild the garage for $10,700.
The man talked her into wiring him a $2,815 down payment, then showed up on her doorstep with another man and got $3,826 in cash from her to pay for building materials that he said were arriving within the hour. The materials never came and he disappeared. She has been in contact with the Chattanooga Police Department, which she said has offered to help try to find the swindler. Her home surveillance video shows the man knocking on her door.
Work on the garage is nearing completion. The roof still needs to be shingled and siding put on, and workers are hopeful the garage will be completed by mid-April. Manning said he also wants to regrade the backyard and reseed it because of the construction work.
On Sunday, Miller was offering the volunteers coffee and bottled water, and Liz Manning with 19-year-old daughter Emily turned up before noon to lay out a lunch spread on a bridge table. "We need to feed the crew," Liz Manning said.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224