JOPLIN, Mo. —
They initially came in droves, pouring into Joplin by the thousands during the months following the May 2011 tornado to clear debris, clean up damaged homes and businesses and distribute donations of food, water, clothing and other necessities.
There are fewer of them now, but their dedication to Joplin seems to be stronger than ever. Some work in construction through local rebuilding non-profits, arguably the most visible aspect of tornado recovery. Others have stayed out of the limelight, working in the background and tackling thankless chores.
They represent all ages, genders, races and religions. They have come from all corners of the United States and also from Joplin itself, in groups with their churches or schools and also individually or with their families.
It’s difficult to put into words exactly how much these people — the volunteers — have done for Joplin over the past two years, Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean said.
“There’s no way that the city can repay adequately all of the volunteers that have been here and are continuing to come to this day,” she said.
Sam Anselm, assistant city manager, took over checking in with local agencies to track volunteer numbers after AmeriCorps St. Louis wrapped up its work in Joplin in December.
According to his most recent figures, Anselm said that there have been at least 176,869 volunteers putting in 1,146,083 hours of time — a figure he calls “staggering.”
The Globe gives our readers a glimpse of some of the names, faces and stories of a handful who continue to work in Joplin two years after the tornado (click on the links at the right to read their stories).
In the early morning hours, even before it’s light outside, Susan Cheshire stands in the kitchen.
She’s not wielding a hammer, or a saw, or a handful of nails that will be used to rebuild someone’s tornado-ravaged home. Instead, she holds a knife for fruit that will go into a breakfast she’s preparing for those who have come from all over the country to aid Joplin’s rebuilding efforts.
She’s a different kind of volunteer — quieter, often staying behind the scenes, more likely to go unnoticed. But she’s perfectly happy to assist in any way possible.
“It’s been a dream of mine for a long time,” said Cheshire, a Lamar resident who has been volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse.
Cheshire learned of Samaritan’s Purse about three years ago and was immediately interested in volunteering with it. Samaritan’s Purse is a non-denominational evangelical Christian organization that assists those in need worldwide, and it has been working in Joplin since the tornado.
But Cheshire said she didn’t immediately have much time to devote to volunteer work. Her job at a pharmacy in Lamar occupied most of her daytime hours. She also had spent the past 32 years as the caregiver for her youngest child, who is developmentally disabled.
That changed last fall, when she learned that her son’s application to live on a Montana ranch for developmentally disabled individuals had been accepted. She moved him out to the ranch, and with an empty nest at home, Cheshire finally turned her eyes to her own lifelong dream: volunteering.
She called Stephen Bergen, who oversees the local Samaritan’s Purse operations, and drove to Joplin one morning before her 10:30 a.m. work shift to fill out the necessary paperwork. She was so eager to start that she asked if there was anything she could do that morning before driving back to Lamar for work. She recalls her first full two-day period volunteering with a rebuild project as “heaven,” she said. Her tasks included cutting tile, laying the floors and painting. Even cleanup of the work site was something she said she loved.
“It was so much fun I couldn’t hardly take it in,” she said.
Cheshire remembers one Saturday when she drove to Joplin to see whether extra volunteers were needed. They were solidly booked, she was told, but if she wanted to return the following Tuesday, they could use her help to make and serve breakfast to that day’s volunteers.
Cheshire jumped at the chance. She awoke early that morning and arrived in Joplin by 5:30 a.m. She helped cut fruit for the volunteers’ breakfast and then returned home to Lamar.
Bergen said all of the 7,600 volunteers who have worked with Samaritan’s Purse in Joplin have been valuable, but Cheshire stands out because of her willingness to do any task and her love for others.
“When she shows up, she asks where she’s needed, and she’s never once complained,” he said. “If she has a Saturday off, she makes the trip down here from Lamar. She has grown to just kind of symbolize what we call the ‘awesome local volunteer’ — they’re a local who will come for just a day here or there, and the Lord will use them to fill the gaps in volunteers.”
Cheshire struggles to give a reason for why she enjoys volunteering so much.
“I think it’s the way God made me,” she said. “I love helping people, especially people who have been devastated and broken because they need it the most. If I can help somebody with my hands and my heart, it’s easy.”