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Churches aid Joplin students in return to school Emily Snell, Aug 29, 2011
PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
A neighbor used duct tape to present a message of “hope” after the May 22 tornado in Joplin, Mo., ripped off four letters from the Joplin High School sign.
By Emily Snell United Methodist News Service
JOPLIN, Mo.—Life in Joplin is not the same as it was May 21. But, the city took a big step toward normalcy as students started back to school while the rebuilding effort by families and churches continued.
“It’s a very exciting day here in Joplin,” said Vanessa Vigneaux, administrative assistant at First United Methodist Church, describing the return to classes in this southwest Missouri town.
Families were happy to go back to school, she said, so they could develop at least a sense of normal life again.
“It’s not the norm,” Ms. Vigneaux said, “because they might be in a FEMA trailer or they might still be living with a relative, but at least they’re back with their friends . . . and maybe not having to think that their house is gone.”
The Rev. Max Raney, pastor at Byers Avenue UMC, agreed.
“Normally, kids don’t want to go to school,” Mr. Raney said, “but . . . it’s been such a hectic summer.”
Though students returned to a normal school schedule, many did not attend classes in the building they thought they would last spring before the devastating May 22 tornado.
High school juniors and seniors attended school in the mall. Others went to a warehouse or older school buildings that were previously out of commission.
“Even though they’ve been displaced from their schools, they’re all excited to get back,” said Jeannette Perry, a volunteer at Royal Heights UMC.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the denomination’s relief agency, has designated so far one $10,000 emergency grant to aid victims in Joplin, and officials in the Missouri Annual Conference say they plan to request more. United Methodist churches in the conference and across the United States donated at least $800,000 to tornado relief efforts.
Hopeful but frustrated
The EF-5 tornado killed 160 people, injured at least 750 and destroyed or damaged 10 schools in the Joplin School District. The tornado, with winds of more than 200 miles per hour, was recorded as the deadliest single tornado since modern record-keeping began in the United States in 1950.
The storm destroyed or damaged three United Methodist churches. Byers Avenue had minor roof damage. St. James United Methodist was destroyed.
St. Paul’s United Methodist sustained extensive damage to its family life center, and its sanctuary was destroyed. Rebuilding of the sanctuary has not yet started, but the family life center is being repaired.
When considering his congregation’s mindset about life in Joplin now, the Rev. Aaron Brown of St. Paul’s UMC said, “I would describe it as thankful and hopeful and frustrated.”
Mr. Brown said people know God is working but the timeframe for rebuilding causes frustration. He said 98 families in the congregation lost their homes and at least 70 more homes had significant damage.
“Nothing happens as quickly as you want it to with rebuilding,” Mr. Brown said. “This process is slow for a lot of folks.”
The congregation now meets for worship at Ozark Christian College in Joplin. Since the fall semester is under way, the church each week must set up and take down its worship service.
“We’re really blessed,” Mr. Brown said about being allowed to meet at the college, “but it’s not our home.”
Despite their own needs to rebuild or repair, many churches worked with schools and families to prepare them for the upcoming academic year.
“We’ve been working all summer getting supplies,” Ms. Perry said. “We’ve been helping people in Joplin get everything they needed for homes and giving out backpacks and school supplies and all kinds of things for kids.”
Contributions pour in
Ms. Vigneaux said her church was a partner with McKinley Elementary School through the Bright Futures program, an initiative that allows the Joplin community to support its schools, teachers, staff and families. She said volunteers from the church made cinnamon rolls for teachers and went to the school to greet students and parents.
Vendors and organizations across the country sent supplies for families and schools in Joplin, Ms. Vigneaux said. “It’s overwhelming the amount of stuff that has poured in here,” she said.
“We’ve been really fortunate with the help we’ve gotten,” Ms. Perry said. “It’s just amazing the amount of people that have helped out.” Mr. Raney said his church is planning to do a “jackets for Joplin” event, providing winter clothing for families in need. Anything left afterward will be given to the school system, he said.
“I think a lot of people were surprised that Joplin was able to get schools up and going by this deadline,” Mr. Raney said. “It all came together. One of the greatest things we’ve seen here is the churches—not just Methodist churches—how they’ve pulled together.” “It’s nice to see the piles of debris gone,” Mr. Raney said, “but we still have this big void. It’s just going to take a while.”
Ms. Snell is a United Methodist Communications intern and a senior at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.