By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Carsen Thompson was at the fountain in Cunningham Park, taking a break from his volunteer work and saying a prayer, when he saw a man who was not part of his youth group.
The man, who identified himself as the father of Sharyl Nelsen, a victim of the May 22 tornado, was visiting a monument in the park inscribed with the names of all 161 victims.
Thompson had been tasked with watering the trees in Cunningham Park with other teenagers on a mission trip to Joplin, but his work momentarily fell by the wayside as the man told him about Nelsen, who lost her life inside the AT&T store on Range Line Road when the tornado struck.
“Listening to someone who’d lost his daughter, it just made me realize it’s the reason we’re up here and adds a whole new aspect for why we’re here,” Thompson said.
Thompson was one of 353 teens and adult chaperones and 18 staff members helping this week with rebuilding and recovery efforts in Joplin this week through Group Workcamps, an interdenominational mission-trip ministry based in Loveland, Colo. The camp, which ends today, brought together teenagers from across the country, program manager Jeremy Warren said.
“It’s amazing to be part of a bigger force like this,” he said. “It gives me goosebumps to see the hope and the work that’s going on here.”
All the participants stayed at Carl Junction High School during the week and attended devotionals, worship and prayer times in the mornings and at night.
“It’s like a religious retreat with community service,” said Heidi Hendricks, a chaperone from Milwaukee, Wis.
Rebecca Meek, a chaperone from Marion, Ind., said as much emphasis is placed on working with others as on completing the community service projects.
“A lot of our focus isn’t just fixing the house, but building relationships,” she said. “It’s not just about projects; it’s about sharing our faith.”
Thompson, a 17-year-old from Sandy, Utah, said he’d spent the first part of the week painting houses, cleaning yards and mowing lawns. On Friday, he was part of a large group watering the newly planted trees — a total of 161, one for each of the tornado’s fatality victims — and shrubs at Cunningham Park.
“Just the impact we get — these trees aren’t just trees,” he said.
Thompson said he and others from his hometown raised the funds themselves to participate in the trip by putting on talent shows, washing cars, selling baked goods and volunteering as “flier hander-outers” at sporting events.
“We worked extremely hard to come do this,” he said. “It was something that we felt, even all this time later, needs not only physical help, but needs to know there are people who still want to come to help. It’s been totally worth everything, without a doubt.”
Emma Cannon and Christine Spencer, both 18, had never met before the camp in Joplin. Cannon is from De Pere, Wis.; Spencer lives in Sandy, Utah. But as the two sat at a picnic table at Cunningham Park for a lunch break Friday, they seemed like old friends — a happy result of having worked together all week long.
“It’s incredible how much we’ve bonded,” said Cannon of her core six-person work crew, which includes Spencer. “Some of it is the atmosphere; we’re all here to do work for the same reason.”
Both teens said they were touched after having worked in Joplin.
“It really hit me hard, the loss that people went through,” said Spencer, who was driven around the city to see the destruction.
Said Cannon: “You don’t realize, watching on the news, how much people still need help. It’s closer to the heart, being here in the middle of it.”
The weeklong camp in Joplin through Group Workcamps cost each student an average of $500 to attend, program manager Jeremy Warren said.