The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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August 10, 2012

Pair of newlyweds choose Joplin for honeymoon destination

Doing tornado relief work together brought couple closer

— The Travel Channel lists St. Lucia, Bora Bora, Bali and the Mayan Riveria among its top honeymoon destinations, but Joplin is nowhere to be seen.

That didn’t stop honeymooners Nathan and Kelly Johnston from choosing the unlikely spot for a weeklong stay after their July 28 wedding.

Having met and made a connection on, the couple from Canonsburg, Pa., had first come to Joplin last year with a church group to help with recovery in the aftermath of the May 22 tornado.

“I’ve always been in missionary work, went to New Orleans twice, always had a heart for helping people,” said Kelly, 26, a music therapist at a skilled nursing center. “We came last year and had a wonderful time, helping to remove debris and get the schools ready.”

They had met through the online dating site in November 2008, dated two years and became engaged in October 2010. In the summer of 2011, they grew as a couple through their experience in Joplin.

They also didn’t want to leave.

“There was a 100 percent connection to the community,” said Nathan, 29, a physical therapist assistant for the elderly. “From the day we left, we said ‘We’re coming back next year.’ The hospitality of the people is something I can’t say we’re always used to in our area. We didn’t want to leave.”

When they returned home to Pennsylvania, they joined Calvary United Methodist Church, having forged a closer connection to its pastor, Rev. Larry Homitsky, and members of the congregation they had worked side by side with in Joplin.

And they began making wedding plans, signing up for an online gift registry, choosing attire and sending out invitations.

But a piece of Joplin stayed with them.

“All last year, Joplin was really on our minds, and seeing news stories about it and knowing we were part of the volunteer crew and we had a part of the recovery effort was a great feeling,” Kelly said.

They tied the knot on July 28, but the weeks leading up to the ceremony were not without challenges for the pair: Nathan’s mother unexpectedly died on June 20.

“Last year she was so happy about us coming here and talked about it to everyone she knew, that Nathan and Kelly were out in Joplin helping,” said her would-be daughter-in-law.

Then Nathan lost his job on July 13.

“When Larry told us the date of this trip, we saw it would be a week after we got married. But there was no hesitation,” Kelly said.

Added Nathan: “We just said, ‘Yep, we’re going to Joplin.’”

The newlyweds spent the first two nights after their wedding at a local bed and breakfast, returned to work for a few days, then joined the church’s return mission to Joplin.

“Technically it has been our honeymoon, and that was a conscious decision,” Nathan said.

That “honeymoon” has not included breakfast in bed, but breakfast served by the First United Methodist Church ladies early in the morning before the work crew heads out to a job site. It also has included separate sleeping quarters for the pair.

“We’re staying in the lower level of the church, and we’re segregated in men’s and women’s rooms. There are no honeymoon suites,” Nathan said with a laugh.

“You’re spending time together, but it’s not the relaxing way that people normally have in a honeymoon,” Kelly added. “At the same time, you do grow closer because of it. You’re out in somewhere you’re not used to, helping people, giving up your own time for others.”

She relates to the sense of loss Joplin residents experienced; in 2006, her family lost its home to a fire.

“It was a total loss. It’s wonderful for me to be part of giving other people a home,” she said. “I know that sense of loss of your home and possessions, so this is healing for me and the people we’re helping.”

For the past week, the group has concentrated its efforts at 1206 Katherine Ave., a home belonging to a tornado survivor who lost her home and needed help with a fixer-upper.

“Both of us have skills in home improvement and construction, and it’s worked out well that we can go into a house that’s in dire straits and hit the ground running,” Nathan said.

Visually impaired — blind in his right eye and with low vision in his left eye — he noted that “people are capable of lots of things if they try.”

The group worked on laying a tile floor, patching and painting ceilings, and other minor repairs.

“We’ve also been to a house on South Jackson, where we’ve assisted another very good volunteer construction crew here for the week. We helped raise all the walls on a house for the first time; it was very gratifying,” Nathan said. “When we arrived, there was nothing but a flat piece of subfloor on foundation; when we left it was starting to look like a place to live.”

The couple have noticed similar progress being made across the city, and were surprised to see the number of new houses that have sprung up in the tornado zone.

“That’s wonderful to see how the city has pulled together,” Kelly said.

After putting in their last hours of work Friday morning on Katherine Avenue, the pair packed up and left with their group to return to Pennsylvania.

Nathan needs to find a job, he said. But they’re starting to discuss plans for a “real” honeymoon, perhaps next year.

They said they’ll continue to watch media sources for updates on Joplin’s progress, and don’t rule out coming here again.

“It’s definitely a high probability we’ll be back,” Nathan said. “Some people want to go to the beach to recharge their batteries, but coming here is a good recharge too. You meet people who care, and their hearts and minds are in the right place.”


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