Monday, August 1, 2011


We returned from our week in Joplin ten days ago and I'm still processing the experience.  

Two days after we arrived home, our team shared stories with our church family (look for the "sermon" video from 7-24-11 here).  I found it surreal to try and bring others in to what I saw and felt just with my words (and a couple of photos).  But try we did, and the response was genuine.

Suffice it to say, the week was unforgettable.

Two days were spent on the road.  With all of the stops we made (gas, food, bathroom), it took 16 hours both ways to reach our destinations, which left little time for anything other than sleep. The four days in-between we spent sharing time with a church-turned-distribution-center, a wheat field, a donation tent, and an office building.

Our first drive through town was shocking.  It was a struggle to take in what our eyes saw.  Total destruction.  Even though we arrived two months after the F-5 tornado struck this city, the damage was still too much to comprehend.  Block after block of roofless homes, foundations where buildings used to sit, businesses in shambles, debris stacked sky high, utility poles torn in two, metal wrapped around trees, trees that used to be lush resembling toothpicks, cars reduced to junk, ponds littered with drywall, houses marked with spray paint.. it was eery.  My eyes still well up with tears when I think about it, and I get that sinking feeling in my stomach.

© photo credit: Tim Bracker

This storm changed lives in an instant.

Congregants from the Riverton Friends Church in Kansas (about 10 miles from Joplin) hosted us during our stay.  Each home treated us like royalty (and bathed us in air-conditioning)!  Chris & I got to stay with two of our dearest friends, Steve & Priscilla (we all knew each other in SoCal), which involved ending our days with them, sharing life over a glass of wine and Ruby Red port.  They had French press coffee made for us every morning, and Steve served cranberry-walnut bagels that he baked from scratch.  

The Joplin Family Worship Center was our main volunteer hub.  We met there the first day and were assigned hours of sorting clothes in a donation tent.  With the temperature at 100 and above every day, you can believe we all met our sweat quota for the year.  No matter what we tried for blotting or prevention or cooling ourselves, the sweat leaked out of our pores like rain down a window pane.

To keeps things lively, Rachel & I featured our favorite shoes throughout the day. These particular pumps were from our French collection.  The gal who chose the green pair was a sweet lady named Angie who looked worse for the wear when we met.  But, when she saw these chartreuse beauties, her countenance changed. Turns out, her cell phone case matched the pattern and color.. and the shoes were a perfect fit!  Another gal came in when we had a pair of polka dot wedge shoes displayed.  She was concerned about her balance and the circulation issues in her feet, but her eyes told me a different story.  So I untied them from the post, insisted she give them a try, and again, they were a perfect fit.  She looked at me with a wide smile and said, "I feel so pretty."

Joy in the little things.

Even my husband found a new look!

On our second visit to the distribution center, we spent the day helping hundreds of families collect donation items and free Crocs shoes.  The event was called Croc N' Roll and was sponsored by the Crocs shoe company.  The church sanctuary was cleared out and replaced with donation stations.  Each of the volunteers acted as "human shopping carts."  We helped folks decide what items they needed (toiletries, cleaning supplies, food boxes, pantry items, toys, water, etc.) and made sure they had more than enough when they left.  Walking with so many families and individuals meant hearing that many stories of survival and heartache.  Their candor was surprising and their gratitude overwhelming.  

I heard more than a dozen stories about folks hiding in bathtubs and closets, and families now living in tents, cars, shelters and toolsheds.

People like you and me.

Wednesday was the day we separated.  Most of our team went to a farmer's field and helped clear it of debris.  While his land was untouched by the tornado itself, his wheat fields were littered with junk from neighboring areas.  Any kind of household item, housing material, personal effect, clothing, dolls, photographs, you name it.. it was blown there.  Apparently, the farmer's cows were eating the insulation and dying.  Plus, the farmer was unable to harvest the wheat and continue his livelihood with all of that waste in the way. Throughout the week, several groups of volunteers took shifts walking the fields with garbage bags and picking up trash.  

Three of us worked with our friend, Priscilla, and a colleague of hers doing office work at a building in the downtown area.  Both businesses were working in a temporary location, in the process of rebuilding.  All of the mundane tasks (replacing damaged files, stuffing letters to clients in envelopes, making follow-up phone calls, data entry, filing, etc.) we did.  It may not seem like much, but when you are as overloaded as these employees were with trying to fix what was lost in the storm and keep up with business demands, it was nice for them to have one less thing to worry about.  With each file folder we opened came a whiff of debris.  

That night, we helped lead a worship service for our host church.  It was an evening of rest for our new friends.  I barely made it through all of the songs.  So emotional.  That line "break my heart for what breaks Yours" from this song gets me every time, especially in a place like Joplin.

The last day was spent back at the distribution center sorting clothing and helping families find items they needed.  Did I tell you I was interviewed for a local TV station?  A gentleman named Cris Wyly was walking through the parking lot interviewing families affected by the storm.  When he met me, he asked questions about our volunteer work and decided to interview me, too, for this station in St. Louis. It was fun to share all of the emotion and impressions from the week, in hopes that others would want to volunteer, too.

As you can imagine, this is an on-going effort.  Joplin's landscape will change because of this event and the community will grow stronger. I think it's safe to say that no one will ever be the same.  Including us.

We had a great team.  We all worked together well, resolved conflict well, we problem solved well, traveled well, and loved well.  Rachel, Olivia, Chris and I drove there and back together and we're still friends.  We even deemed Olivia's loaf of Wonder Bread as our car's mascot.  Yes, we did.

Hugging and sweating.  That about sums up my time in Joplin.  The sweating part I underestimated, but the hugging part was just right.  

I already miss those beautiful, weary faces.

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