Members of Middlebury Congregational church give help after Missouri tornado

MIDDLEBURY — Six members of the Congregational Church of Middlebury headed to Joplin, Mo., May 4-11 for the church’s fourth annual service trip: Patty Hallam, leader Dave Hallam, Mary Lou Webster, Rich Carpenter, Phil Heitkamp and Peter Carothers.
Joplin sustained massive damage from an F5 tornado on May 22, 2011. This deadly storm began as three twisters that combined into one huge tornado about a mile wide, destroying almost every­thing in its path with its wind speeds over 200 mph. When it was over, in about 38 minutes, 700 homes, 500 businesses, five schools, 18,000 cars and trucks, and most of the trees were gone along a 10-mile swath. The death toll was 160, job losses were approxi­mately 5,000, and damage estimates topped $3 billion, which is about the same amount that has been spent to date during the three-year cleanup and rebuilding effort.
We learned these facts and much more on our first stop: the office of Rebuild Joplin, the organiza­tion responsible for the restoration of many homes, including the one we were to work on. They showed us a very scary video of live shots taken during and after the event. The tragic human stories were hard to listen to, but remain with us.
We then headed to Dana’s house. Dana lives alone in a three-bedroom, one-story house on a quiet street. On that fateful day she had heard the sirens, went outside, and saw a dreadful sky, so she returned to grab some pillows and take refuge in the bathroom to ride out the storm. At that point she truly feared for her life: “I thought it was going to suck the life out of me.”
After many minutes the storm passed. She got out of the bathtub and saw destruction and chaos in all directions. However, enough of her house remained, water supply was not affected, and electricity was restored soon, so she could stay put.
By the time we arrived, Dana was living in one bedroom with two small rescued dogs while the other rooms were being redone. The roof and other exterior damage had been repaired. Our jobs included sanding, priming and painting walls; cleaning floors and installing new flooring; and installing doors and shelving.
We met our two AmeriCorps site supervisors, Sara and Becca, who were delightful to work for and with. We were joined as well by Betzi, a “permanent” UCC volunteer who has been in the disaster recovery business since she retired as a telephone company pole-climbing cable splicer. All three women are now true friends. 
It’s lucky we were only six because of the tight spaces in which we were working, and some was taken up with construction material. Imagine Rich and me installing flooring in a small bathroom! By the time we left almost all of sanding, priming painting, cleaning and installing had been completed. Our crew continues to build upon our reputation of a strong work ethic, accurate work, and we “play well together.” We just learned that Dana moved back into the rest of her house a week after we left.
Each evening we returned to “The Station,” a converted WWII Quonset hut located adjacent to our host, the South Joplin Christian Church. The Station has very comfortable accommodations for men and women. Here we prepared and ate many happy and delicious meals, including bag lunches.
Decorating the walls of the ample living room and kitchen/dining area are colorful shirts, work pants, sweatshirts, and even construc­tion debris formed into crosses, all bearing the names of hometown churches, that dozens of volunteer groups had created and displayed. We donated a Rebuild Joplin shirt and inscribed the outline of Vermont, our church name and location, and each of our names. 
South Joplin Christian Church is a wonderful and venerable institution. Ever since a young minister was called a few years ago the members have been building a remarkable program of service, which went into high gear after the tornado. Besides refitting and managing the Station, their post-tornado outreach has been impressive. The members and assistant pastor welcomed us with open arms and sincere thanks for our mission. They served us a chicken dinner in their Fellowship Hall, told many stories, and even took us on a tour of the tornado’s path. The tour demonstrated to us how absolutely amazing it is that Joplin has accomplished so much in less than three years. One sees very little unrepaired damage, but there are many, many vacant lots that may support brand new homes and businesses in the future. 
One church member couple has a son, Kenny Foster, who wrote, produced and sang a touching and expertly done video entitled “Home Town.” I urge you to spend five or six minutes watching this. If you watch it twice and listen closely to the words it will leave a lasting impression. Here is the link: http://bit.ly/Uny1fi.
For us, what remains of this mission is the glow of overwhelming gratitude, expressed verbally and in writing, over and over by all whom we met. We are blessed!
Editor’s note: This article was contributed by Peter Carothers, with contributions from the other volunteers.

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