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When an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011, the Drury community felt such sadness for the profound loss that occurred. When such an unimaginable tragedy happens to a city, we hurt along with the people affected. Within Drury, there are countless Joplin connections – staff and faculty who either grew up or have family there, current students whose families live there and alumni who work there. We also feel a basic human connection, because we know that when Nature strikes our vulnerability is exposed.
In tragedy, however, the strengths of human nature rise to the top in ways that are rarely replicated. The response to help is great. Here are a few stories of that connection, that response, that compassion in action.
To be a victim of a tragedy and, at the same time, a person who makes a difference in that same tragedy, is a unique perspective. Drury graduate Michael Kabonic '08 was put in that position when the tornado ripped through his Joplin duplex as he and his girlfriend, Katie Davenport, took shelter in their bathtub. Michael and Katie are both fourth-year medical students at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine, and they also work at the Freeman Hospital in Joplin. Skills learned in medical school coupled with compassion became the focus when they heard their elderly neighbor's cries for help. They flagged down a car and took wounded and dying. Without hesitation, they donned scrubs and assisted the doctors and nurses in triage along with other medical students.
Michael says, "It solidified my desire to be a doctor. In that situation it was just the people who needed your help." Nothing else mattered. It was hard for him to witness the emotional suffering people experienced. "Entire families would be in the emergency room for care. Parents were there who didn't know where their kids were and vice versa." Even most of the people caring for the victims had lost their homes just a few moments before.
He and Katie are now staying with friends and family, working to alleviate the extra load at Freeman Hospital while the St. Johns Hospital is being rebuilt. They have only been part of the Joplin
community for a little over one year, but they will forever be connected to the city where they went through so much together.
As a resident of Joplin for 15 years, Jessie Bjorklund '10 happened to be driving with her mom, Judy, to visit a relative on that day in May. On a break before Jessie's 2nd year at the St. Louis
University School of Medicine, they were in the middle of Iowa when they heard about the tornado. The rest of the Bjorklund family, including her father, four siblings and her beloved dogs were in Joplin. Jessie said, "It was so hard to hear about it and be so far away." The family was blessed. No one was hurt and their home remained untouched.
Those blessings allowed the Bjorklund family to continue to aid the community. Jessie's dad is pastor of the Abundant Life Christian Center in Joplin. In April 2000, the church opened a non-profit food bank called "We Care of the Four States." Since the tornado, the center has housed 4,000 volunteers and fed 15,000 meals to volunteers at no charge. The ministry provides free accommodations for volunteers while they help with the cleanup and rebuilding for the uninsured or underinsured. Because the need has doubled since the tornado, We Care continues to invite
residents in to select groceries that they need from the shelves.
Jessie is proud of her parents' decade-long connection to people who need help. Her mom, Judy, says, "We need prayer, volunteers and monetary donations to keep the vision going until the rebuilding is finished." Their motto is: Bigger, Better, Stronger.
Dressed as Wawa Jud the Clown, Bob Gardner '71, MBA '74, manager of Drury's Carbon Copy, brought laughter and fun to the Joplin community. As the official clown of the Children's Hospital in Springfield, he knows that anyone suffering can "use a funny escape from reality, even for a just a few moments."
Bob heard about another group who was gathering purses to donate to women who had lost everything in the tornado. So, he asked the Drury community to donate lightly used purses. The Admission Office partnered with Bob and volunteered to fill the purses with essentials – clothing, notepads, pens and personal hygiene items. Bob also asked for used children's books to deliver to children. While in Joplin, he visited a women's shelter, the YMCA, the Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern University and Freeman Hospital. Wawa Jud the Clown gave away over 200 purses and over 1,000 books. Not only did he connect people with fun and laughter, he ended up bringing hope.
Rescuing photographs that have been strewn across the path of the tornado and reuniting them with their owners is the goal of the Lost Photos of Joplin Project. So far, 26,000 photos have been recovered for, and hopefully claimed by, the residents of Joplin. Victoria Johnson, the systems administrator of the Olin Library at Drury, was the perfect fit to help with this endeavor. She has been working with Operation Photo Rescue since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and enjoys the process of working with thousands of volunteers all over the world who help restore the photos that have been damaged during disasters. Victoria designed and maintains JoplinRescuedPhotos.org to help tornado victims reconnect with their past.
Drury's Assistant Baseball Coach Scott Nasby and his team coordinated a group of almost 60 volunteers to help remove limbs and debris in Joplin on May 26. They grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and handed out beverages and over 600 sandwiches to people who were working around the clock. The Drury volunteers connected in a tangible way by meeting the people they were helping.
One volunteer in the group, Charlie Hungerford, M.A. '93, posted on his Facebook page that day, "The first family we helped had just moved back the neighbor to the hospital. They had no idea of the extent of the devastation. As they arrived at the Freeman Hospital emergency room with a flashlight in hand, the force of reality hit hard. So many people were severely into their house after rebuilding from a fire. Their house is scheduled to be demolished today. So sad, but yet bright spots of hope are everywhere." He said that the bright spots were "seeing people helping everywhere, getting word that people were being found alive, people finding personal items in the rubble that would bring back good memories for them."
One couple, overwhelmed by the task, said that they had just prayed for help and a group showed up only a few minutes later. It is nice to connect in a spiritual way. Coach Nasby hopes to go back after baseball season is over to help with rebuilding. The Drury community has also donated over $17,000 to Convoy of Hope.
There are 95 Drury alumni who live in Joplin. As the new school year begins, two new freshmen from Joplin join nine current undergraduate students from Joplin. The tornado made a profound change in their lives. The connections forged by shared sorrow continue to grow through our desire to help one another.