They're back! They're back! The volunteers are back!
As we drive through town the kids and I excitedly shout out the license plates of cars driven from far-away states. College students, high school groups, the occasional retired couple, all here to help rebuild Joplin. Wonderful does not even begin to describe the joy, the gratitude, the sigh of relief it is to see these souls giving up their time and energy to help us.
Joplin was such a mess. Just hours after the tornado touched down, the middle third of the city was unrecognizable. I remember, as my neighbor's son tried (unsuccessfully) to get me and my 3 uninjured kids to the hospital, that the town looked like a war zone. Like we might as well have been in Kosovo. I mean, what else could have caused such "unnatural" destruction but a violent bomb attack? Two weeks later, as we drove to our rental house on the far northwest side of Joplin, the debris had morphed with subsequent rain storms from war zone to dump. The kind of dump you see in Mexico, India, or Ethiopia. There were pieces of life but it was not a friendly or livable environment. There was such a disharmony between the splintered wood from homes like mine which were picked up, thrown, and scattered, the pink of home insulation, the steel from bent and upturned cars and and the shards of glass that sparkled in the sunlight. The trees were (and still are) sad. Those still standing were mangled, missing bark, and oddly leaning northeast.
Despite the unlivable land, the life force of Joplin became stronger. But, it wasn't on our own that we gained forward motion; it was the life of the volunteers that gave Joplin back its mojo! They came from all over the country, even from other parts of the world! Some of the volunteers who helped my family hailed from England, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Florida. They used their vacation hours from a job where they work hard, packed their cars/church vans/got on the plane, brought their kids, put on a breathing mask and rubber gloves and happily completed dirty, difficult, repetitive tasks. They listened to our traumatic stories, they hugged us, they helped us find the right size shoes for our kids when we couldn't bend over because of a pregnant belly and a broken pelvis (oh, wait, that might have been just me but you get the idea). The helped us stock our cupboards again with food donated from amazing companies like Newman's Own (and MANY more), they helped us load our cars with bottled water and cleaning supplies and toilet paper. They picked through the wood and metal and glass and fiberglass and nails and junk to find any piece of our old life like a photo from our wedding or an almost whole piece of our favorite Royal Copenhagen Mother's Day collective plate or one of our kid's favorite toys. They provided meals and prayers and health care and human touch and kindness to us when many of us couldn't keep our thoughts straight.
But, they had regular lives to which they had to return. Toward the end of summer the volunteer rush had quieted to a trickle. The big-wig volunteer relief organizations like The Red Cross and Samaritan's Purse loaded up their giant buses and headed out of town. I remember one day in late August I was driving toward the highway and passed a massive convoy of military vehicles leaving Joplin. That was scary. I thought to myself, "I guess we must be doing fairly well if we don't need them any more." I felt excited and nervous for Joplin at the same time. Taking that first step without support is terrifying, but once you realize you can move forward, even if at a snail's pace, you want to do it on your own.
Joplin has been moving forward. I read that 50% of the properties (business and residential) that were destroyed have applied for new building permits. I can drive through the destruction zone and see that is true. But Joplin still has so much work to do. I am thrilled the volunteers are coming back. I am glad to be able to take THEM water, give THEM a hug, and tell THEM that we will be all right.