By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Rhonda Wilkins and Patricia Bryan had never met before.
But their paths finally crossed for the first time Thursday as Wilkins, who lost everything in the May 2011 tornado, officially took possession of a piece of land that Bryan had donated to assist with tornado recovery efforts after the storm.
Wilkins, Bryan and their families gathered at 2204 S. Grand Ave. for a short ceremony to hand over the property’s deed. Also present were representatives of Samaritan’s Purse, the organization handling the building of the house at that site, as well as volunteers from Wisconsin, Colorado and Kentucky who were in Joplin to work on a separate Samaritan’s Purse project.
Soft-spoken and teary-eyed, Wilkins said receiving the deed was overwhelming.
“It was just a God-blessed day for me in many ways,” she said. “Words can’t really say how I feel inside.”
At the time of the tornado, Wilkins lived in the 2400 block of South Connor Avenue. Her house was being bought for her by her son Matt, who had returned from a six-year service stint in the Marine Corps.
On the afternoon of May 22, 2011, Wilkins was in Riverton, Kan. She saw the storm pass over the town and head east toward Joplin. As soon as she heard about the devastation from television reports, she jumped in her car and drove home.
But finding her home was nearly impossible. Because of the destruction, she couldn’t recognize South Connor Avenue. When she finally came across her house, she saw that it had been severely damaged.
“I had four walls still standing, but it was devastation everywhere,” she said.
Wilkins said she and her two sons spent a few days salvaging what they could, including some silverware and family photos. She moved in with a friend, but she was so stunned at what had happened that for months she could not ask for help from any of the relief organizations that had come to Joplin.
“It was hard to believe that I had lost everything,” she said.
Last fall, a friend urged Wilkins to call Samaritan’s Purse for assistance. She got in touch with case manager Stephen Bergen, who dropped off paperwork for her later that day. Within another 24 hours, Wilkins said, she had returned the papers and was on the docket for assistance.
Bryan and her husband, David, were in their house at 21st Street and New Jersey Avenue when the tornado struck. They took shelter in the basement and found their house two-thirds gone when they emerged. Additionally, three of their eight rental properties across Joplin were either destroyed or damaged, including the property at 2204 S. Grand Ave.
They were surprised in the weeks that followed by how much help they received from volunteers — particularly from those associated with Samaritan’s Purse. Bryan said it was not unusual for groups of people to show up at one of their properties to assist with debris removal and cleanup.
“It was just like an army of ants,” she said. “They just showed up in crews.”
The Bryans were back in their own repaired house by November 2011 and started talking about donating at least one of their rental properties to tornado recovery efforts. After her husband passed away last May, Bryan donated the 2204 S. Grand Ave. property to Samaritan’s Purse last fall. It was the first property the couple had bought in Joplin when they entered the rental business, she said.
Choosing Samaritan’s Purse as the recipient of the donation was an easy decision, Bryan said.
“They had helped us so much on the property, and I heard they were in the area doing projects, and I wanted this property to be part of that effort,” she said.
Because Samaritan’s Purse is not authorized to receive property donations, the Joplin Family Worship Center handled the transaction on behalf of the organization, pastor Daniel Wermuth said. Local attorney Scott Vorhees provided the legal services, he said.
Bergen said work on the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house should pick up sometime during the spring. Wilkins will contribute at least 75 hours of work toward the house, which overlooks the vast Joplin High School site, he said.
Wilkins said she “very much” looks forward to getting back into her own home, doing yardwork, planting flowers and cooking meals for her sons in her own kitchen.
She said that without the Bryans’ donated property, she likely would not be expecting to move into a house later this year.
“I could tell them ‘thank you’ over and over again 1,000 times, but it would never be enough,” she said. “I am so grateful of the donation that they made.”
About the organization
SAMARITAN’S PURSE is an international Christian organization that assists survivors of natural disasters, war, disease and poverty. Its founder is Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham. Residents may volunteer for local projects by contacting volunteer coordinator Stephen Bergen at 417-291-1515.