GEORGETOWN — When Toyota worker Tom Trent lost his fight with colon and kidney cancer in 2005, a co-worker was at his home within an hour.
The visitor wasn't someone Trent had worked side by side with for years. It was the head of Toyota's outreach department, a five-person team that attends funerals of employees and their families, celebrates weddings and births, and does a little bit of everything for colleagues in need.
The program originated in 1999 at the Georgetown plant and might soon be expanded to all of Toyota's North American manufacturing plants.
Toyota's outreach team has its roots in the 1997 death of an employee killed in a plane crash on a business trip to the Detroit Auto Show.
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"We recognized there were a lot of needs that the family had that we weren't ready to help with," said Sheila Corn, who heads the team and joined it shortly after its inception.
When the group started its work a couple of years later, it was just a few people attending funerals and helping hospitalized workers in addition to their normal responsibilities. Now, five workers focus on it full-time. They each came from different parts of the plant. They're not trained to be grief counselors but aim to be a helping hand to people in times of need.
Among their jobs:
■ Attending the funeral and visitation of any plant employee or their children or spouse that are within a three-hour drive of Georgetown. They also attend either the funeral or visitation of parents, siblings and in-laws who pass away.
■ Ordering flowers for funerals and for employees who are hospitalized for three days or longer.
■ Ordering food for families during funerals. The group once made an order for a family in St. Lucia, in the Caribbean.
■ Delivering meal vouchers to the families of those hospitalized.
■ Ordering gifts for weddings (crystal dishes) and births (photo albums).
■ Organizing retirement parties and gifts, as well as serving as liaisons to retired employees if they need assistance after leaving.
During Toyota's last fiscal year, which runs from April to March, the team handled 1,086 deaths; 369 hospitalizations; seven home destructions, in which they helped with finding lodging and new uniforms; 108 births; and 78 weddings.
The group relies on supervisors and employees to alert them to cases, either through an internal Web site or hotline.
"Every day's totally different," Corn said. "We never know when we come in where we might be going or what we might be dealing with."
The impact of the program is long-lasting on many employees like Trent's wife, Martha Creacy, who recounted last week just how touched she was by the team's time with her and her husband as he fought cancer.
"Tom loved to fish, so they brought fishing magazines and fishing tackles," said Creacy, who has worked at Toyota for nine years. "I'll never ever forget the impact it had on me and Tom. Just to see him lighten up was just wonderful."
While Trent was hospitalized, the team brought meal vouchers and "even called me to ask if I needed the yard mowed."
And when Trent passed away, Dewey Crawford, the manager of the team at the time, was there.
"He didn't intrude," Creacy said. "He just said, 'I'm here if you need me.' It just meant so much.
"Even after he passed away, I got phone calls. I got cards. I got all kinds of uplifting things that were just overwhelming. It was just so overwhelming to me."
Trent also was added to a memorial statue on the Georgetown plant's grounds that lists the names of those who have died while employed there. The outreach team installed it in 2004, and each year, the plant has a memorial service.
Creacy said the team's not just there during bad times.
"I recently got married, and what shows up at my door, but a gift," she said.
Corn said the team typically takes its cues from employees and families on how to assist.
"Several years ago we had a team member who had cancer and had no family here," she said. "We took turns driving that person to chemo."
All the team's work is confidential, too. The company receives only overall numbers of those helped but not names, she said.
When the Georgetown plant created the program 10 years ago, it couldn't find any like it at similar companies.
And as the company looks to roll it out at all North American plants, the members are seeing what other Toyota plants are doing.
"Other plants have programs to furnish wedding and birth gifts, but no one has the family-support program that we have in place," Corn said.
Indeed, Toyota's efforts are beyond what many companies do, said Waneeta Everson, a bereavement and end-of-life coordinator at the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation in La Crosse, Wis.
"I'm impressed that they do all that for them," she said.
And even as the recession slammed the automotive industry in the past year, Toyota has stuck by the program.
"Back when this really hit," said spokesman Rick Hesterberg, "the company looked at every program we have and put everything on the table to see where we could do some cost containment. And the decision was this is a program that needed to stay.
"You just can't take for granted what it means to people."