Earlier this week I traveled to Joplin, Missouri, for a trip I will never forget. The Joplin story is one of a community that that never gave up, that demonstrated steely resolve in the face of tragedy, and that is coming back stronger and better than before. It is also the story of volunteers – 130,000 strong and counting – whose selfless service has lifted up an entire community when it needed it most.
For many residents, the one year anniversary was a painful reminder of the devastating EF-5 tornado that ripped through Joplin, killing 161 people, destroying 7,500 homes and buildings, and leaving a trail of destruction through the heart of the city.
But even more so, the anniversary was a symbol of hope, pride, optimism, and unity. The people of Joplin did not let themselves be defined by what happened on May 22, 2011. Instead they defined themselves by what happened after - their extraordinary resilience and desire to rebuild.
As President Obama told the graduating seniors at Joplin High School, “Here in Joplin, you've also learned that we have the power to grow from these experiences. We can define our own lives, not by what happens to us, but by how we respond. We can choose to carry on, to make a difference in the world.”
Driving through Joplin, the signs of progress are everywhere. Businesses are reopening, homes are being rebuilt, and neighborhoods are coming back. The Chamber of Commerce reports that more than 80 percent of businesses have reopened, and 25 brand new businesses have started. Throughout the tornado zone, contractors and volunteers are building new homes or repairing damaged ones.
My first stop was at one of those homes. Jeanie and Warner George have lived on 32nd Street in West Joplin for 38 years. The tornado badly damaged their home, destroying the roof and garage and causing all the walls, floors, and surfaces to be covered in mold. Due to medical bills that have run their life savings to nothing, salvaging their home seemed impossible. Then, three months ago, a member of the AmeriCorps St. Louis recovery team called to check on the Georges to see if they needed any help.
With the assistance of skilled volunteers and coordination by AmeriCorps, the house has been completely gutted, the damaged garage and roof have been removed, and in its place is all new subflooring, insulation, electric wiring, drywall, roof, windows, and garage with an added on first floor bedroom to accommodate Warner's disability. Jeanie told me AmeriCorps members are doing more than rebuilding a home. “They have lifted our spirits. They saved us; they knew what to do when we didn't know where to turn."
Jeanie's gratitude is something I heard over and over in Joplin, and similar to what other disaster survivors have told me after hurricanes in my home state of Florida. Volunteers' physical impact – whether removing debris, gutting a home, or rebuilding – is critical. But just as important is the emotional boost that comes when a group of strangers shows up at your door, showing compassion and kindness in the face of chaos. City Manager Mark Rohr has called this “the miracle of the human spirit.”
Joplin's swift recovery isn't about one group of volunteers, one nonprofit, or a single government agency. It's about partnerships - thousands of people working together to achieve collective impact. On Tuesday morning, I spoke with 35 leaders of Joplin's recovery – including representatives from FEMA, the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, Joplin city officials, and leaders of the faith-based and nonprofit groups that have been on the front lines of recovery.
We talked about the progress of the recovery, lessons learned, and the road ahead. The sheer size and destructive power of the Joplin tornado required fast and creative action. More than one leader said they had to throw the playbook out. Fortunately, strong relationships already existed between relief Missouri organizations, and through training, experience, and coordination they knew what to do.
One essential component of Joplin's swift recovery has been the existence of a strong and well-managed infrastructure to handle the massive influx of volunteers who have come to help. Joplin officials are grateful that the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team arrived just hours after the tornado and immediately set up a volunteer operation to ensure volunteers were trained, tracked, transported, and deployed safely.
In the first year, AmeriCorps members have coordinated more than 75,000 volunteers who have given 520,000 hours of service and completed more than 2,200 homeowner requests. I visited the AmeriCorps Recovery Center, the home base of this effort, to see how it works. AmeriCorps members track homeowner needs, register and deploy volunteers, and meticulously record their hours and progress. In addition to ensuring volunteers are used effectively, this AmeriCorps-led operation was instrumental in saving the city of Joplin more than $17.7 million in disaster costs. As Karen Benson, director of disaster response for Convoy of Hope, told me, “AmeriCorps is the glue that held this together.”
At the center, I also had the opportunity to speak with 40 AmeriCorps members serving in Joplin and the surrounding areas. I heard from Darla Armstrong, a retired Joplin school teacher who joined the Bright Futures AmeriCorps VISTA program after the tornado to coordinate donations to students so they can stay focused on their studies. Abby Simon signed up for a second year with AmeriCorps St. Louis in order to continue helping Joplin recover. Several members, including Quinn Gardner, told me how their experience in AmeriCorps has led them to go into the emergency management careers. Since the tornado, more than 350 AmeriCorps members have served in Joplin, including 240 AmeriCorps NCCC members, and AmeriCorps commitment to Joplin remains strong.
My trip to Joplin concluded with the Walk of Unity, an extraordinary walk along the path of the tornado that attracted more than 6,000 people. The city organized the walk to emphasize the spirit of togetherness that has made Joplin's recovery possible. Looking across the sea of people, I was inspired by their sense of determination, pride, and optimism for the future.
After the speakers had finished, we gathered at a section of Cunningham Park that is a tribute to volunteers. Symbols of the volunteer response are cast in bronze – a sledgehammer, work gloves, an AmeriCorps hardhat, and a simple plaque. It reads:
“The Miracle of the Human Spirit symbolizes the incredible outpouring of volunteers who have lifted Joplin out of the rubble. Countless volunteers from all walks of life have offered themselves to the Joplin effort without request, serving as a reminder of the overwhelming power of human generosity and the steadfast tenacity to rebuild the once broken city… Joplin and its residents are eternally grateful to those heroes.”
Joplin is not finished rebuilding, and neither are the rest of us. As we continue to support Joplin, let us also thank Joplin, for being an example to the world of what is possible when people come together.
Wendy Spencer is Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service. To learn more about the national service response in Joplin, read the press release, blog posts and fact sheet, watch the video, and view photos.
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