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Rams Pitch in to Help Joplin

Posted Jul 15, 2011

HOW YOU CAN HELP

For more information on how you can help:
On the web: www.rebuildjoplin.org
On Twitter: @AmeriCorpsSTL, @AmeriCorpsSJTRS
On Facebook: "Like" AmeriCorps St. Louis
By Phone: Call 417-625-3543

JOPLIN, Mo. – Misti Lindquist has lived here for 40 years. In that time, she’s been married here, built her home here. Joplin has been as much a part of her as she’s been a part of it.

On May 22, Lindquist was one of the 50,000-plus residents in this town forced to sit, watch and listen as the community in which she’s so entrenched was ravaged by one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history.

As the EF5 tornado, measuring nearly one mile wide, ripped through six miles in the heart of Joplin, Lindquist found herself in the fortunate situation of being out of harm’s way. She was one of the lucky ones.

By the time the storm finally passed, around 116 people were found dead and almost six miles of the town had been completely wiped away.

On Wednesday, about 87 members of the Rams front office staff made the five-hour trek via bus for the organization’s monthly day of service. Upon arrival, the group was divided into four teams and sent out into the community to help with everything from debris cleanup to organizing donated clothes, bedding and toys to be distributed to those in need.

“As an organization we are always looking at ways to help our fans and our community," Kevin Demoff, the Rams chief operating officer/executive vice president of football operations, said. "When a tragedy strikes in your state, those are people we consider to be our fans and part of our community, you have to expand your horizons to incorporate those people in your view of what makes St. Louis and Missouri a better place to live. Watching the damage on television and knowing the response, it seemed like a place we needed to be to not only lend our helping hand but also to remind others in St. Louis that there's much more work that needs to be done and that Joplin still needs our help."

Although the devastation of the tornado is still clearly evident to the eye of any and all outsiders, what might not be so easy to see is the unrelenting spirit and belief that this healing city is going to overcome and fight its way back to a normal existence.

WORDS CAN’T EXPRESS

By the time the final winds of the tornado had blown through Joplin, AmeriCorps and the United Way were already mobilizing to send help.

On the heels of an EF4 tornado that had ripped through St. Louis on April 22, the St. Louis AmeriCorps crews had already been exposed to the destruction the storms could cause.

But for AmeriCorps workers like Abby Simons, what would await them in Joplin was eye opening, even for someone who had previously seen some of the most horrific things Mother Nature can bear.

“I’ve never seen anything like this and I’ve been to a lot of the disasters in the past,” Simons said. “I was helping after Katrina and I’ve never seen anything like this. Houses are completely flattened in every single direction you look. I didn’t see the destruction zone until a few days later and words escaped me. They still escape me going out there. I think pictures and videos and words can’t describe it. You have to go and see it for yourself. It still breaks my heart. It’s devastating.”

Arriving in the wee hours of May 23, AmeriCorps workers and volunteers hit ground zero running and immediately went to work on finding ways to help the clean up and rescue efforts in town.

The group worked quickly to establish a crisis call center which eventually evolved into the main volunteer center in town. On the first day alone, people from all over flocked to Joplin to find ways to help.

Simons says about 30,000 volunteers came to town right away in an effort to help. Overall, more than 40,000 volunteers have donated their time just to AmeriCorps. Of course, that group also keeps tabs on how many volunteers are coming through other organizations to help the various causes in town.

All told, Simons says people have generously volunteered more than 250,000 hours of their time to help Joplin.

For people like Simons, who are constantly around devastation and disaster, it’s the kind hearts of those volunteers that keep her motivated.

“We still have hundreds of spontaneous volunteers that just show up and stay around,” Simons said. “We’ve had people come for a month and just be a part of our team. The volunteers are what keep me going. Without people like you guys (the Rams organization), I wouldn’t be able to keep this going.”

MISTI’S MISSION

In the aftermath of the destruction of her hometown, Lindquist didn’t want to see the wreckage. She couldn’t bring herself to see what had happened to the only place she’s ever really called home.

That didn’t keep her from wanting to find ways to help, though. Listening to the coverage of the tornado on KZRG radio, Lindquist heard a call go out for anyone who would be willing to help wash clothes for people who had none that were clean.

Lindquist and her mother responded immediately. Soon after, she got a call from the same radio station asking if she’d be willing to take on a truckload of clothes to wash.

Before she knew it, Lindquist was inundated with seven truckloads of clothes to take back to her house which sits on about five acres of property six miles south of the destruction zone.

Within four days, Lindquist had a full blown distribution center in her front yard with six semi trucks, five carports and three fireworks tents full of donated clothes, bedding, toys, shoes and anything else you could imagine that people might need.

“We had a family that came out here to get some supplies and it broke me right then and I knew I needed to go in and just see what it did to Joplin,” Lindquist said. “When we did go in, it was devastating. The Joplin I knew and have known for 40 years was nothing.”

Needless to say, the idea of simply doing a little laundry quickly faded and Lindquist was ready and willing to do anything possible to make a difference even if she was a little overwhelmed by how things developed.

“I was OK until the semi loads started coming in,” Lindquist said. “When that happened I was way overwhelmed. The community has given me lots of support and got us to where we are today. We started out with two tables, now look at us. They say we are the biggest distribution center in Joplin.”

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Monday through Thursday, families with proof of address in the affected areas can go to Misti’s Mission to get whatever they need. If they can’t make it during the normal operating hours, Lindquist and her husband make arrangements for them to be picked up or even take orders to deliver.

In establishing Misti’s Mission, Lindquist believes she has found her calling and a way to really make a difference, not only in Joplin but beyond.

The outpouring of donations and support have nearly overtaken her property and Lindquist dreams of finding the funds to open a warehouse that can become the point distribution center for any and all future disasters occurring in the United States. She even dreams that some day that warehouse’s reach can extend worldwide.

“I want to be able to help all states,” Lindquist said. “With what we’ve done so far, we know the dos and don’ts of the donations, we know what to do.”

VIEW FROM THE GROUND

It was only six months ago that Travis Williamson held a solid government job working in finance for the Treasury Department in Washington D.C. It was the type of job that can provide a lot of security but also one that eventually grew stale.

“I found myself getting really complacent,” Williamson said. “I was doing finance and I couldn’t see myself doing that for 30 years. I kind of freaked out a little bit and I still had the itch to do some traveling and do something adventurous. So I found this program and I just bailed.”

Williamson returned to St. Louis and signed on with AmeriCorps in early January. Soon, he was helping people in the St. Louis area hit by an ice storm, a New Year’s Eve tornado and of course the tornado that struck St. Louis on Good Friday.

Those experiences were plenty eye opening but they couldn’t prepare him for what he’d see upon arriving in Joplin.

Placed as a ground coordinator, Williamson’s job was the help with debris cleanup and relief. There was little to no time to adjust and prepare for what awaited.

“The day I got here we took a ride through the area, we had the music on and everyone was talking and then when everyone saw the damage, everyone got silent,” Williamson said. “It was an eerie thing. I don’t even know what I was thinking.”

Because there was almost no time between the end of the storm and the work in the field, Williamson and his co workers were exposed to nearly everything.

On one foundation they found roses in honor of a mother who had passed away. The only other thing sitting on the foundation was a bathroom which had survived the storm and where the daughter had told her mother to take cover.

On another, a bookshelf stayed standing even as a house wall collapsed on it. It was the one place in the house that a family had chosen to take shelter and it ultimately saved their lives.

It’s those images that will forever be etched in the minds of the thousands of workers and volunteers that have made their way to Joplin in the months following the storm.

The memories in the field aren’t limited to those who have been on the ground for weeks. When the Rams visited on Wednesday, they were immediately struck with how close to home the tornado hit.

Rams ticket sales representative Tia Washington was one of the staff members working on debris cleanup. Within minutes of stepping off the bus and into the wreckage, among the first items she found were a pair of Rams teddy bears.

“I picked it up and showed everybody,” Washington said. “It was crazy. It was just sad.”

After three weeks in the field, Williamson switched duties to group volunteer coordination, helping large groups of people like the Rams staff be placed into roles to help out.

“I was one of the guys on the ground leading the volunteers, doing the briefings making sure everyone was safe and we did that for three weeks and that took a toll on me physically and mentally,” Williamson said. “It’s probably good I transitioned to another role because I was getting fried.”

MOVING ON

Nearly two months have passed since the tornado destroyed everything in its path. Where residential neighborhoods once stood, debris now crawls across the expanse of the storm’s six-mile path.

Where churches once hosted worship now sits empty land. Where the St. John’s Mercy Hospital once housed the sick and injured now sits an empty building with blown out windows and two entire floors missing that were sucked away by the tornado.

For outsiders viewing the damage for the first time, it appears that progress has been made but it’s clear that there is still much work to be done.

“We want to do this for the city,” Simons said. “We want Joplin to be able to take care of themselves but we are going to be here as long as possible to just help them get there.”

The outpouring of support from volunteers and strangers is evident in the shipments of clothes and other necessities that arrive almost every day at Lindquist’s home. It’s evident in the groups of people who show up on a whim every day asking how they can help.

But for as much help as Joplin still needs, the spirit of the city lies in its desire to move forward and rebuild a community.

“They want to get past it, they honestly would like for people to forget about it and move on which is wonderful but we still have debris to pick up,” Simons said. “The one thing that’s giving everyone hope is that buildings are going up and new homes and office buildings are coming. They are moving on. We just want to help it go a little bit faster.”

Indeed new construction has already started on a number of businesses and homes. Others are being repaired and restored in hopes that things can eventually go back to normal.

Still, the need for help is still abundant. Workers from organizations like AmeriCorps have been told they will be in Joplin for an indeterminate amount of time. In the meantime, anyone willing to donate their time to the cause is welcomed with open arms.

“The city will be rebuilt by volunteers, it’s being cleaned up by volunteers right now,” Simons said. “We are hoping to start actually rebuilding. It’s been wonderful to see green on the trees and grass is growing. There’s a lot of hope that’s coming back to Joplin.”