Michelle Million-Worley brushes off the thanks that volunteers assisting in the rebuilding of Joplin usually receive. Instead, she considers herself the thankful one — thankful, she said, for the chance to do something meaningful to honor her daughter, Rayni.
“Rayni loved helping people, and immediately after she passed, I knew she would want me to continue,” she said. “She was an amazing child. She was so giving.”
Million-Worley, of Poplar Bluff, on Saturday wrapped up nearly a week of volunteering for tornado rebuilding efforts in Joplin in memory of her 15-year-old daughter, Shelby-Ruth Rainwater “Rayni” Worley, who died Nov. 7 from complications of a surgery. She said it was her first trip without her daughter by her side.
Million-Worley said she is still working to process her grief, but she takes comfort in knowing how many people her daughter had touched. Rayni donated her old clothes to children living in shelters, volunteered with Vacation Bible School classes and wanted to provide meals to the homeless, she said.
To continue that mission on behalf of her daughter, Million-Worley volunteered with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian relief organization that has been in Joplin since the May 2011 tornado. She put up drywall and built the railing of a deck at a house on East 25th Street in Duquesne. On Friday, her last full day in Joplin, she was learning how to cut concrete blocks at a house on the 2500 block of South Virginia Avenue.
“She (Rayni) couldn’t have done stuff like this because of her lungs and the dust,” she said, “but this is her kind of thing.”
Rayni was born with severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome, which causes abnormalities in the immune system. As she grew older, she also was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which involves the scarring of the lungs, and pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. Because of her illnesses, which had been diagnosed as terminal cases, she was homebound through the eighth grade and spent a few hours each day at her high school with other students, her mother said.
Million-Worley said Rayni went into cardiac arrest in the middle of a scoliosis surgery last fall. For two days afterward, she was responsive but on life support. She spent the next two weeks heavily sedated, and at that time Million-Worley made the difficult decision to remove her daughter from life support.
Million-Worley said as she worked this week that she felt connected to her daughter.
“Helping people makes me happy; helping people made Rayni happy,” she said. “This week I’ve had a lot of joy. This week I’ve laughed a lot.”
She said being in Joplin has sparked an understanding of what families — particularly those who lost a child — faced after the tornado.
“I just feel for the people here,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think any parent who has lost a child has a special bond with someone else who has.”
Million-Worley said she chose Joplin because it is relatively close to her hometown, as she was afraid of being far from her friends and family during her time of grief. She and Rayni had also taken a detour through Joplin shortly after the tornado as they drove back to Poplar Bluff from a medical conference they had attended.
“I remember stopping at a gas station, and we were in awe,” she said. “The devastation — Rayni was just taken aback.”
After her week in Joplin, Million-Worley said she will return home to work and save up enough money to allow her to take another break for volunteer efforts.
“I’ve already asked about coming back,” she said.
Michelle Million-Worley and her daughter, Rayni, years ago launched Rayni Day Miracles, a nonprofit organization serving children with life-threatening illnesses. Million-Worley continues to work with the organization after her daughter’s death.