Joplin: One Year Later

What was left of our Joplin office after the tornado

On the evening of May 22, 2011, a devastating F5 tornado ripped through the community of Joplin. In its path were thousands of homes and businesses including our Special Olympics Missouri Southwest Area office. Fortunately, no one was working on that tragic Sunday night. All that was left of what once housed our office was broken beams and debris spread for miles. We lost all of our office supplies and sports equipment. Those were replaceable.

We heard the next morning that two very dear SOMO athletes had perished in their home. The third, their roommate, was fighting for his life and not expected to make it. Ultimately, Tripp Miller, Rick Fox and Mark Farmer all lost their lives at the hand of the tornado. In fitting style of a Special Olympics athlete, Tripp’s last words to his rescuer were, “thank you.”

Our hearts were broken for these families, for the loss of our athletes and for those in the Joplin community whom we had grown to love over the years while they hosted our State Indoor Championships.

And then they came. Our friends from Special Olympics programs around the nation began calling to offer their assistance and check on the well-being of our SOMO family. Our State Summer Games were a mere three days away (just 45 minutes from Joplin). Our hearts were heavy. These friends lifted our spirits; they sent donations, equipment, gift cards and they showed up to volunteer at our State Summer Games. Special Olympics Louisiana held our hands through the entire process teaching us what they had learned during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Other Special Olympics programs, namely New Jersey, Maryland, Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Oregon, Maryland and Delaware sent food, financial support, supplies, kind thoughts and their prayers.

Today, exactly one year later, two staff members reflect on the tragedy, and how hope eventually shone through the clouds.

From Mark C. Musso, President & CEO:

In the hours that followed the Joplin tornado, we started receiving calls from Special Olympics programs all over the world. The callers wanted to express their sorrow regarding the loss of our three athletes and their desire to help in any fashion. Within 48 hours, the programs in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois had organized staff and volunteers to come to Missouri to help run our State Summer Games, which started three days after the tornado. Watching these people help during our games was one of the moments we will always treasure as it reaffirmed the family spirit of the Special Olympics movement. During the months to follow, some 20+ programs sent financial support including several local programs from other states.

Soon after the funerals and memorial services, the task of reopening a Southwest Area office was imminent. We made the decision to bring in a headquarters staff member to serve as the project coordinator so our Area Director could focus on providing programs for our athletes. Thanks to the incredible work of Laurie Shadoan and many other staff and volunteers, our new office was open in less than 90 days after the tornado. During this time, Robin Anderson was able to continue to serve as our Area Director, and under her leadership not one single event was canceled.

As we mark the one year anniversary of that terrible day in May 2011, we focus on all the great things our fellow programs did to support us and the amazing accomplishments our own team of volunteers and staff have been able to achieve.  Lastly, we rededicate our efforts to provide services to our athletes statewide in honor of those three men we lost – Tripp, Mark and Rick.  We will never ever forget them and how they made our lives so much better.

From Robin Anderson, Southwest Area Director. You can reach her at anderson@somo.org.

On May 22, 2011, the lives of everyone in Joplin and the surrounding area were forever changed. It was a level of mass destruction that you cannot put into words to describe to anyone. It was a war zone and horror story. The footage that you would see in the papers and on TV did not do it justice.

As you may know, the Southwest Area Office was destroyed in the tornado. Standing in the parking lot, you could do a 180 and see nothing but devastation for miles. The sights, the sounds and the smells are something that I probably will never forget.  It was the most awful, horrendous thing that I could ever imagine seeing, and there I was in the middle of it. The sirens, the helicopters, the chain saws and the generators were so loud, but yet there was silence. So many people out helping others and looking for loved ones, but no one made eye contact. It was like if you looked at someone in the eye it would become real. And no one wanted this to be real.

I saw so much devastation, but at the same time I saw the most amazing things. No one was letting this take control of them. Within minutes of the tornado, the most amazing things happened. People got out with chain saws and their vehicles to help in any way that they could. The radio stations immediately started announcing who needed help and who was ok.  People from all over the country flocked to Joplin, bringing food, water, clothing and workers to clean up the debris.

There is not a person that I know that was not affected in some way. Not only was the middle of Joplin ripped out, but the emotions that went with it were unbelievable and overwhelming. As with any other loss, you don’t get over it, you just learn to live with it.  I learned that it is ok to cry, it is ok to laugh and it is ok to feel guilty and hurt and sad and helpless. You just have to learn what to do with those emotions. Like so many others here, I had to one day say, “This is not going to control the rest of my life.” I think the hardest thing was people not understanding my emotions and thinking that I needed to just shake it off and get over this. This was so much worse than a bad day. It affected so many people, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.

As time has gone by, things are getting comfortable again. I would like to say that they are getting back to normal, but that would be a lie. We will never be back to normal because our normal isn’t there. We are creating our new normal. Homes and businesses are going up, and most of what was destroyed is gone. There is happiness that things are rebuilding, but sadness for what is gone. What is difficult is that some of the personality of Joplin seems to be gone. It is hard not to see that. I still don’t know where I am because the landmarks that I knew are not there. It seems lonely in certain parts of town and that is sad to me.

It took about three months for the Southwest Area office to relocate and open for business. I love our new office. So many great people helped get it to where it is now.   Programs from across the country gave their financial and moral support to the office, to the Joplin athletes and to me. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. It is a time like this that we truly see the good in people.

One year later, people are moving on and rebuilding their homes, their businesses and their lives. But at the same time, they will never forget 5:41 on May 22, 2011. So many things have changed, mostly me. I am not the same person I was a year ago. I look at things differently. I see the important things in life and don’t get hung up on the petty things. Life is precious. And not a day goes by that I don’t think about Tripp, Mark and Rick. I close my eyes and see Tripp’s smile and that makes me smile. Because, as he would say, “I do like this place!”

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Volunteering at District Bowling

Jennifer Price volunteered at the SOMO District Bowling Tournament at Southside Family Fun Center in St. Joseph March 3 & 4, 2012.

It was a very humbling and amazing experience to meet all the athletes and see how their faces light up and how excited and determined they were to do their best despite their disability, whatever it may be.

I was especially touched by the athlete pictured with me.  Lage is an amazing young man who survived, against all odds, a very traumatic experience and was often referred to as a miracle.  He was injured in the tornado that devastated Joplin last year.  Lage was in a vehicle along with his grandmother and cousin sitting in the Home Depot parking lot when the tornado struck, leaving him severly injured.  He was found among the rubble and devastation of the Home Depot store next to his grandfather’s truck.  The tornado had relocated the truck from the parking lot to what once was the Home Depot store.  Lage is a terrific, determined young man and obviously a fighter.  He has overcome so much already, defying the odds as he continues to heal.  He does all of this and continues to have a big heart and with a smile on his face.

People like Lage are an inspiration and should remind us all to be thankful and thoughtful for those around us and what they have to offer.