People in Joplin know they have a lot to be grateful for.
Even the government gets its share of kudos. Sitting at a table with the Joplin HBA Board of Directors, I heard builder Gary Rose say, "I have no complaints whatever with City Hall. They’ve been great to work with, and they’ve been accommodating to us." As for FEMA, Crystal Harrington said: "You hear about bureaucracy and red tape, and you kind of want to be prepared to hate ‘em. But these guys had their act together." Gary Rose agreed: "My hat’s off to ‘em."
But then Gary said, "What has made this whole deal a successful recovery is, no doubt, the volunteers. All the way from the cleanup to the Extreme Makeover build, it was just absolutely amazing." Heads nodded around the table; everyone agreed.
"When you talk about volunteers," Gary went on: "some people will drop by and say, ‘Hey, if you need something, call me,’ and then go away. But these people, they showed up with their work clothes on, and rakes and shovels and chain saws and tractors … whatever it took. They didn’t just talk the talk; they were walking the walk. They were in there getting dirty and getting with it."
"The people who came here," said Crystal, "it was the nastiest work you would ever want to do. It was shredded insulation, asbestos, tree branches, dirt, toothpick-sized debris, and just junk. And it was hot. And they came and picked it up with their hands, put it in a wheelbarrow, and took it to the curb. All that mess in the pictures — all that was picked up and moved by people, with their hands, and they were all volunteers."
When I visited Joplin in April, a year after the tornado, you still couldn’t throw a brick without hitting someone who had come there to volunteer and help. Wandering around Joplin on a weekday, I ran into them everywhere. Just up the hill from the high school in the early morning, I met Beth Labella-Foster, an assistant pastor from the First United Methodist Church in Rockwell, Texas. She was taking some photos of the view from the hill above the school before starting work; later, she and some parishioners would be hanging drywall around the corner.
In the fenced-off parking lot of the ruined high school, I met five people from a group called Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Visitors from north central Kansas, they were chipping mortar off a pile of bricks in the parking lot of the ruined High School. The bricks would have pictures of the planned new high school attached to one face, and be sold for a $50 donation to help build the new school. "Tomorrow we’ll be somewhere else in town," one lady told me. "We go wherever they say to go."
A few blocks away, at 2325 Pennsylvania Ave., I stopped into a house under construction and met a crew working with Catholic Charities. They were helping to rebuild a house for retiree Ed Boyd and his wife, Kay. Ed stopped to talk with me.
Ed and his wife had hidden under the stairs during the storm. "We couldn’t come out," said Ed. "We had to holler to someone for help. The door was blocked by debris." When a neighbor came and freed them, Ed looked up: "I said, ‘Kay … the roof is gone.’ And the tears started to roll. I still have tears in my eyes. It’s funny. You wake up at night and you think about all the stuff that you lost."
Ed Boyd had retired three weeks before the tornado struck after working 43 years for one employer. His house was paid for. He had insurance, but he told me, "I didn’t have enough. You need to have more. People don’t think about that." Now, too old to start over, he’s grateful for the charity that has showered down on his town. "Volunteers," he said. "I’ve had volunteers from Illinois, Kansas City, Kentucky, Tennessee … people have just come up here and helped."
Joplin is still full of volunteers. In the old neighborhood west of the high school where Ed Boyd lives, they were a steady presence this April, a year after the storm. But in the days immediately following the storm, it was a swarm. They brought supplies; they brought money; they brought tools; and they did hard labor. And everyone I met who had been in the storm had a story about them.
Everett Wallace told me, "A man came down the street while I was cleaning up, and he asked me if I owned the property. I said yes, and he pulled out a check for $500 and wanted to give it to me. And I said, ‘Sir, I appreciate the offer. But I have insurance on my house, and I’m not broke. And there are a lot of people around here that could use that more than I can.’ But he told me, ‘You don’t understand. We want you to have this money.’ This was a church out of Oklahoma."
"We had so many people," said Eileen Wallace. "We had people from Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, people from Kansas."
"Young people," said Everett. "And these skinny little thin girls, they can out-work these boys two to one."
"This couple came from Pittsburg, Kansas," said Eileen. "She was a little lady. He wasn’t a big guy either. They just came walking down the street, and they said, ‘Do you guys need help?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ And the girl said to Everett, ‘What would you like us to do?’ And Everett said, ‘Well, I would like to get in that door over there.’ Well, in no time, those kids had everything out of the way. And we had four young people from the university come. The young lady had a surgical boot on her foot. I said, ‘Honey, can you do this okay?’ and she said, ‘Oh, sure, no problem.’ They crawled into the bedroom and she climbed in and out of there and handed stuff to the kids out there, and they carried it out to the curb."
Everett said, "These three kids in particular, they worked all day long here. And when they got ready to leave, I pulled out a hundred-dollar bill for each of them and tried to pay them. And I hurt their feelings. Because they didn’t do that for money or anything; they were doing it to help the people."
Tom Mayberry remembers: "It was everywhere. Every street, up and down the street … little old ladies coming up to give you something to drink or something to eat to make sure you were nourished. They were just there. If you needed something, it was there--gloves, whatever. Stuff just poured in here. It was heartwarming." Mayberry remembers an old man using a walker: "He would bend down and pick up a piece of scrap about this big and put it in the basket on his walker. And he would walk over to the dumpster and put it in there. Then he would go back and get another piece. Back and forth, back and forth."
Mayberry says, "We have a place down on the lake in Garfield, Arkansas. It’s a hundred miles away. And we were in church that next Sunday down there, and I was hearing what their pastor was telling their church, what their plan was for Joplin. He was saying, ‘They got a lot of people in there right now. But we need to think about a couple months down the road. That’s when we need to be there. When everybody scatters, we need to come in behind and give some support.’"
"I can’t say enough about the help that was given," Mayberry concludes. "It was amazing."