Joplin: Rejoicing, Remembering and Rebuilding One Year Later

"But you are from Joplin. So you will remember, you will know, just how many people there are who see life differently; those who are guided by kindness and generosity and quiet service." -President Obama

I heard these words from President Obama during Joplin High School's graduation ceremony Monday night. Not on the television, but just some yards away from his podium in the stands of a local college's gymnasium. While I am not a member of the Class of 2012, I was still in awe with the crowd over our very own president standing before us. During his speech, I remember thinking: How did we get here? One year ago, President Obama spoke in Joplin to see the destruction left by an EF5 tornado and gave us hope. Last Monday, he came to rejoice with us in all that has been accomplished in just 12 months.

On May 22, 2011, Joplin was devastated by one of the seven deadliest tornadoes in the nation's history. Consider these numbers: 7,500 houses destroyed (including four houses of my relatives and my own childhood home), over 500 businesses demolished, 13 schools gone (with my high school among them) and more destruction that totaled nearly $3 billion in damage. The most unfortunate statistic of all, however, is the 161 lives lost. Of those who passed away, two of them, Lantz Hare and Will Norton, were students at Joplin High School. Will Norton was driving home from last year's high school commencement when the tornado ripped him from his father's arms.

For all of us in Joplin, May 22 gives a connotation of loss, fear, destruction, and pain. But every day presents newer statistics -- different numbers that display the progress that has been made. Over 80 percent of Joplin's destroyed businesses have reopened their doors. Nearly 600 permits for new homes and almost 3,000 permits for rebuilding projects were issued by late April 2012. On August 17, 2011, the school year began as scheduled, but our high school was split into two separate campuses across town. One of them, the 9/10 campus, is in a building formerly used as a middle school. The other, the 11/12 campus, is a temporary location built in an old Shopko store at the local mall. On my daily commute to the 9/10 campus, I notice more and more new homes spring out of the ground in the "tornado zone."

"In Joplin, the sun rises every day on a different place, and sets every night on a better place," said Governor Jay Nixon at the 2012 commencement.

His words rang true. Each day, whether I'm driving to the grocery store, school or simply around town, I'm reminded of what it takes to rebuild a community of 50,000.

In one years' time, pop sensation Katy Perry has sponsored senior prom, American Idol winner David Cook performed at homecoming, and the United Arab Emirates gave each Joplin High School student a laptop to replace the loss of textbooks. AmeriCorps members have been present in Joplin since hours after the storm. These individuals, along with other volunteers from all over the country, are helping with long-term recovery efforts, such as rebuilding homes. For their 200th and final episode, the popular television series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition completed the show's largest project ever in Joplin. A team of 21 builders and 13,000 volunteers accomplished building seven homes for seven families in one week.

Finally, thanks to the citizens of Jasper and Newton counties, a $62 million bond issue was passed to fund a brand new state-of-the-art high school, which celebrated its groundbreaking on the anniversary of the tornado with thousands in attendance. The groundbreaking was one part of a larger event called the "Walk of Unity." Joplin residents and supporters commemorated the anniversary of the tornado by treading through the heart of the tornado's path. Others stops on the walk included a steeple raising at to recognize the 28 churches destroyed by the tornado, and a ribbon cutting at the opening of Kraft Insurance Services, to acknowledge last year's demolished businesses.

The list doesn't even begin to end there. Generosity has been given a new meaning for the people of Joplin. From across the nation and around the world, individuals have put their lives aside to take part in the efforts. Take for example, Zach Tusinger, a Joplin native who could have taken a higher-paying job at a law firm but instead decided to use his legal skills to assist those victims who are still facing legal challenges after the disaster. Mariah Hutchinson, who received her diploma Monday night, was so moved by the AmeriCorps volunteers that she signed up to volunteer for 10 months with the organization. She even applied for the FEMA Corps, a division of AmeriCorps that responds to natural disasters alongside FEMA. Of the thousands of volunteers who showed up in the days after the tornado, one man flew all the way from Japan. Toshiya "Toshi" Moto was so inspired by the efforts put forth by the U.S. following the 2011 tsunami that he decided to, in Obama's words, "pay it forward" and help American disaster victims.

"It's not just the sadness," Toshi explained. "You see the good side of people. I felt that in Japan and I feel that here."

The May 22 tornado brought tragedy, loss and devastation. I will never forget that "first look" of what the storm left behind, the feelings of being homeless, or knowing that I will never complete high school in a traditional building. Instead of letting those experiences define me, however, I have learned that it is how we respond to tragedy that makes us who we are. Just as President Obama stated, Joplin's citizens have seen a positive side to humanity that has forever changed us. Like Zach Tusinger, Mariah Hutchinson, Toshi and so many more, we will not sit aside when tragedy strikes others. Instead, we will understand and relate to those affected by the storm and use our talents to help them, just as we were, and continue to be, assisted by other generous souls.

Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti used his acting skills to give a dramatic reading of the Book of Job during "Job for Joplin," an interfaith service held last weekend. A local group, "Restore Joplin," used all their profits from simple but popular t-shirt designs to meet the immediate needs of individuals and community service organizations in Joplin. A simple Facebook page and website created within hours of the tornado called Joplin Tornado Info provided a place for numerous relief organizations to send information to thousands of people.

Even though Joplin's restoration will take years, we will never forget the kindness of those who assisted us. I have learned all of us have the potential to make an impact on those around us, just as we were impacted by others. It can be by doing something as simple as making a Facebook page or designing a marketable product to flying halfway across the globe and volunteering. The extent of our impact doesn't matter, only that we attempt to make one and help others the best way we can. This is the very definition of the miracle of the human spirit. We will never forget May 22, but it is the continuing reconstruction -- thanks to the generosity of others -- that gives us a reason to rejoice, not just this year, but for many years to come.