Building a Legacy: Local Project Engineer Leads Impactful Construction for Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

When Project Engineer Kayla Johnson has a few quiet moments to walk through the jobsite that will become Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority’s (CIHA) new long-term care facility, Tsali Care Center, she often reflects on what the finished product will mean to her community.

Kayla JohnsonJohnson (pictured right) is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and was raised in Cherokee, North Carolina. While she’s seen many facilities rise from the ground in her hometown, the new 135,000-square-foot Tsali Care Center is special to her for the dedicated services it will bring. In addition to skilled nursing and assisted living quarters, it will feature an entire wing dedicated to memory care services.

“My grandfather was in the [former] Tsali Care Center for a while and he had dementia,” Johnson said. “The older facility didn’t have dedicated space to accommodate that level of care. Now I’m building this new facility, with a big, beautiful wing that is 100% dedicated to memory care. It’s humbling.”

Johnson began her career in construction with Robins & Morton in February 2020 after graduating from the University of Mississippi with a degree in civil engineering. She connected with Robins & Morton while the company was building Cherokee Indian Hospital’s crisis stabilization unit and behavioral health addition — the third project Robins & Morton had completed for the CIHA at the time.

“My mom had met [the project’s superintendent] at the hospital’s annual gala,” Johnson said. “When I was home from school, she gave me his card and I called him. I came out to the job, and he had a hard hat and vest ready for me to start walking the project and talking. It wasn’t at all what I expected from a first interview!”

She recalls feeling welcomed by the Robins & Morton team and sensed “everything was falling into place” as her husband, who was on active duty in the Air Force, happened to be based in Birmingham, Alabama, near the company’s headquarters. She was offered a position and began work in the Birmingham office, supporting the company’s Government Services division.

“I didn’t have any field experience when I came into construction since my background was civil engineering,” Johnson said. “I was really hungry for that, but I knew there was a lot of value in working in the office first to learn more about the business. I had great mentors and a lot of people who were willing to teach me about project management.”

In April 2021, she got her first taste of field experience. Robins & Morton began building CaroMont Regional Medical Center – Belmont, just west of Charlotte, North Carolina. The 256,000-square-foot hospital would give Johnson the chance to see nearly every aspect of construction in action.

“For a while, it was just me and the senior superintendent on that project,” she said. “I learned so much.”

Midway through that project, the CIHA was preparing to break ground on the Tsali Care Center, and Johnson received an offer to return home to build it.

“Honestly, I was a little torn,” she recalled with a laugh. “I had put so much time in on the [Belmont] project and wanted to see it through, but it’s not every day that you get the chance to build something so important for your community. I had to take advantage of it.”

In early 2023, only a few months after the Tsali Care Center’s construction began, Johnson and her husband returned home to Cherokee. Now, she spends her entire workday in the field coordinating the construction of the center.

“From the beginning [of my career], I thought I wanted to be a project manager,” Johnson said. “But now, I don’t know. I love being out in the field, getting my hands dirty; it’s fun. I feel like I get more out of my day.”

Although she is connected to all the work she does, this project feels different for her.

“This place will be used by my friends and family every day,” Johnson said. “My parents, my children, me — we’ll all probably be in here someday. It really brings my experience as a builder full circle.”

The experience has also been eye-opening for the impact that she can have as a visible female construction leader.

“A woman that I work with out in the field told me the other day that I had inspired her to go back to school and finish her education,” Johnson said. “Those are the moments that make it all matter.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Johnson said that the most important part of her work is using her skills to give back to her community.

“Everything I do is for Cherokee,” Johnson said. “It’s only because of this community’s support and leadership programming that I am where I am today.”