JOPLIN, MO. – Much has changed here since the St. Louis Rams last visited. Where fields of devastation once stood filled with debris, new houses, new churches and new businesses have emerged.
It’s been almost a year since the Rams staff traveled to Joplin to aid in the cleanup and relief efforts taking place in the wake of the destructive EF-5 tornado that ripped apart a six-mile stretch of this town on May 22 of last year.
The Rams staff, joined by a group of 35 rookies and members of the cheerleading squad, returned to Joplin on Thursday afternoon but for much different reasons. While last year was about helping a grieving city in need, this year’s trip was about a renewal of hope and all of the good that comes with it.
In total more than 100 Rams staff, players and cheerleaders hopped on buses at 5 a.m. Thursday for the five-plus hour ride to Joplin to take part in the Governor’s Joplin Challenge, which asks every professional sports organization in the state to team with the Joplin chapter of Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes in the city.
Kevin Demoff, the Rams executive vice president of football operations and chief operating officer, was taken aback by the differences in the Joplin that he and the staff saw last July and what they saw Thursday.
“I think the most amazing thing is to drive the streets and see so many people came and cleaned Joplin to make sure you could start the rebuilding process, the healing process,” Demoff said. “To see finished houses where a year ago when we drove through and there was just destruction and silence on our bus and now people pointing to where we were a year ago and think ‘Hey, I remember being over here and look, there’s a new house.’ You can see the progress.”
The progress began soon after the tornado struck last year. The mile-wide tornado ripped through a stretch of about six miles in the heart of the city and left nothing but the wreckage of more than 7,700 households.
AmeriCorps was on the ground with a group of volunteers soon after and teamed with local churches and other non-profits to help the cleanup efforts. Those efforts continued well into the latter half of the year.
Because of the debris and wreckage, there was no opportunity to begin building right away. In fact, the city didn’t even issue building permits until much of the debris had been cleaned up. That came nearly three months after the tornado first hit.
With most of the cleanup complete, the work that had been focused almost solely on removing what was left of homes and businesses turned to rebuilding them.
Enter the Joplin Chapter of Habitat for Humanity along with Burkhart Construction of Joplin and volunteers from Missouri State Southern University.
Scott Clayton, the Executive Director of Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity, said it took a little while for things to come together so the rebuilding could begin.
“I think the first few months after the tornado, everybody’s head was kind of spinning, everybody was trying to figure out what are we going to do and how are we going to do it?” Clayton said. “The churches were huge at coming together and so many non-profit organizations that specialize in disaster relief came and AmeriCorps was huge and a lot of it was debris clean up and a little bit of recovery in there because life changed here for everyone after the tornado. But now, we just had the one-year anniversary and I was thinking everyone was glad about May 22 because that just means we get back to building homes. We’ll never change as far as remembering what happened but all we want is to work hard and have this town back and better than ever.”
For their part, Habitat for Humanity began constructing homes right away after receiving the building permits from the city. In a normal year, Clayton said his group builds three to five homes in the Joplin area but he recognized quickly that their efforts were going to be needed for a long time and for many more homes in rebuilding Joplin neighborhoods.
In the time since Habitat for Humanity was allowed to begin new construction, it has built 14 new homes and is on the verge of completion of 17 more.
When Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced on Feb. 4 that he was “challenging” seven major sports entities in the state to come together to help build 35 homes in Joplin, the Rams quickly responded to his call.
“We came to Joplin last year to assist with the cleanup effort and the devastation was so incredible that we knew it was going to be a long-term effort to rebuild this community,” Molly Higgins, the Rams vice president of corporate communications and civic affairs, said. “We also knew we wanted to be part of that rebuilding process so when Governor Nixon issued the challenge, our response was immediate.”
Joining the Rams in accepting the Governor’s challenge are the Chiefs, the Blues, the Cardinals, Mizzou, the Royals and the Kansas Speedway (NASCAR).
“As a professional sports team, we have a unique ability to assist the community and bring awareness to causes, and every single person in the Rams organization not only understands, but embraces that opportunity,” Higgins said. “Community involvement has become a top priority for this organization from the players to the staff to the cheerleaders.”
On Thursday, the Rams returned to Joplin with 35 able-bodied rookies in tow and a staff of nearly 100 to help work on three of the five houses for the Rams “neighborhood” in the Joplin challenge.
“It’s been absolutely incredible,” Clayton said. “Joplin area Habitat for Humanity has taken a pretty large role in building homes. Now that we have started on the Governor’s Challenge, we started with the Chiefs last week and this week the Rams and tomorrow we’ve got the Mizzou Tigers. So it’s incredible. They are coming down, they are working hard and it’s been a real treat to work with them.”
Upon arrival in at the Boys and Girls Club of Joplin, the rookies were dropped off to take part in a Play 60 activity with local children. The staff dispersed to paint trim while the skies cleared. When the weather finally let up, everybody converged at the three homes the Rams were working on to raise walls and nail them down.
For the rookies, it was an eye opening experience but a necessary one in terms of what will be expected of them in the community as Rams, according to Demoff.
“When you can get a rookie class 35 strong, coming down to Joplin, helping to build a house, it’s great for them to understand what being part of this community means with the Rams,” Demoff said. “For the Rams, we pride ourselves on being a service organization, giving back to St. Louis, giving back to Missouri, they are learning at a very early stage in their career with the Rams just how important it is to be part of that process.”
By the time the year is out, Clayton said the goal is to have between 55 and 60 new homes built in Joplin though that will be far from the end of his group’s work. The Governor’s Challenge will account for more than half of that.
Each house built in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity provides families a new home, generally with a three bedroom, two bathroom floor plan (though they can adjust to two or four bedrooms depending on the size of the family) that comes with a 20-year interest-free loan.
The homes are all designed to be energy efficient and come with energy efficient walls and windows as well as star rated appliances.
While there is still a lot of work to be done, the changes in less than a year are noticeable for anyone who comes through town.
“I’m sure if you came back in a year you would see this whole neighborhood fill in,” Demoff said. “I think for us, a year ago you were trying to figure out how can you help, how can you get involved? You come down to clean up one home site and you are trying to see ‘Does that make an impact?’ Now you are here a year later and you are building three home sites at one time. You realize how quickly progress can be made and how much an organization 100 strong, 35 rookies strong can make a difference.”
Of course, the virtues of the Joplin Challenge aren’t limited to the tangible work being done to build the homes. The rebuilding project taking place in Joplin will deep into 2012 and well beyond.
Volunteers are always needed and for organizations like the Rams that can’t be on the ground helping every day, it’s important to at least remind people that their help is still needed.
“I think the most important thing is to remind people we are here in Joplin, there’s a need in Joplin,” Demoff said. “So many times after a natural disaster, people come down and they need it at six weeks, two months, three months and start to rebuild. Now we are here a year later and still reminding people in St. Louis how important it is to come down and help, how Habitat for Humanity needs volunteers, whether it’s painting, building walls, helping with drywall, putting up plywood. There’s a need everywhere in Joplin still and it’s not going to get done just with construction companies and just through the government, it’s going to take volunteers just as it did a year ago.”
For a place that’s come so far, there is still a long way to go.
“The first few months you are going to have your shock and then for several months after that you are going to have some moments where it’s like ‘Man, that place I used to go to is gone,’” Clayton said. “There’s an element of sadness there. Now, it’s coming back and every day it’s what do you do? You work hard. Every day, you make progress so you get closer to being normal again. Every single day.”
Clearly, much has changed in Joplin in the past year. But what’s left standing is more evident than ever: the spirit and perseverance of a city that continues to endure.