JOPLIN, Mo. —
Ten university students swarming a house in south Joplin on Wednesday insisted that cutting tile and laying floors was the way they wanted to spend their spring break.
For some of the students — all from the University of Connecticut — the Joplin trip marks the second or third time they have picked a disaster zone rather than a sandy beach for their spring vacation.
That commitment will put more Joplin residents back in their homes after the May 2011 tornado, said Thomas Corley, with Rebuild Joplin. He said nearly a dozen college groups from across the country are spending their “holiday” working on tornado-damaged houses and moving the organization toward its goal of building 70 new homes this year.
“They bring so much energy and ambition to the project because they’ve decided before they come that they want to give back,” Corley said of the student groups.
“So when other kids are posting pictures of vacation on their Facebooks, these kids’ pictures will be of them swinging hammers, painting walls and bringing families home.”
Corley said four houses are being worked on during the spring break, and that Rebuild Joplin has completed 12 houses so far toward its goal of 70 this year. More than 120 houses were renovated or built earlier by the group.
This is the ninth year for the alternative spring break program at the University of Connecticut, according to Kelly McCabe, an adviser with the group. In recent years, she said, volunteers from the university have spent their spring breaks on the Gulf Coast and in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“They raised money for the trip, and they’ve been raring to go ever since we got here,” she said.
“I wouldn’t do anything else,” said student Hanna Richwine, as she and Krissy Piotroski installed floor tile in a home at 2018 Annie Baxter Ave.
“This is my fourth time, and I always learn something,” she said.
Ryan Coyle said he wanted to come to Joplin because he was “struck by the idea of someone losing everything in a tornado.”
He and Ian Sorenson said they wanted to help families get back into their homes.
“This is part of my faith — being of service and giving back to others,” Sorenson said.
The home on Annie Baxter Avenue is slightly outside the tornado zone, but it was lifted from its foundation during the storm, Corley said. Repairs since then have been a three-year ordeal for homeowners Tom and Elaine Shoptaw.
Rebuild Joplin stepped in when the couple were unsuccessful in getting a settlement from their insurance company. They had lived in the tornado-damaged house since the storm and moved out to live with family members when the home renovations started two months ago.
“We’ve had to do a lot,” Corley said. “The worst part is, the storm shifted the house and broke the structural supports.”
“The storm lifted the house up,” said Tom Shoptaw. “And after that, whenever it would storm real bad, the house would move.”
The work crew was being fortified Wednesday by cookies and brownies that Elaine Shoptaw had baked. Tom Shoptaw said she delivers treats twice a week to show the volunteers how much their help is appreciated.
“We love every one of them,” he said. “We feel like our family has grown a bunch.”
While the UConn students were doing interior work, volunteers from the Mennonite Church were a few blocks away at 2401 Murphy Ave., framing up a new house. Corley said the home would accommodate a couple with five children who were underinsured at the time of the tornado and had to spend their insurance settlement to pay off their mortgage.
He said Mennonite volunteers have been involved in between 25 and 30 Rebuild Joplin projects.
“They have been here from the beginning, and their skills are so valuable,” he said. “They get a house up, and other volunteers can go in and finish it.”
Most of the Mennonite volunteers have come to Joplin to work for six months at a time, said Gene Isaacs, of Alberta, Canada. He said other workers on the site were from Manitoba, Canada, and North Carolina.
ALSO SPENDING SPRING BREAK IN JOPLIN are students from Albright College, Chicago Campus Life, the University of Akron, Maryville College, Lyon College and the University of North Texas.