The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Tornado: Mike Pound

May 27, 2011

Mike Pound: Heroic deeds, and now basic needs

JOPLIN, Mo. — Lynn Johnson says her friend Michele Maxson is a hero.

“She saved a lot of people’s lives,” Lynn said.

Lynn and Michele worked at Dillons for 23 years. I say “worked” because the Dillons store at 1402 E. 20th St. doesn’t exist anymore. The store was one of hundreds of Joplin businesses destroyed in Sunday’s tornado.

Lynn wasn’t working at the store when the storm hit. Michele was.

“It was the scariest thing in my life,” Michele said. “We got everyone into the produce cooler. To my knowledge, everyone got out. There were 13 employees and 19 customers.”

When I told Michele that Lynn said those employees who were at the store during the storm are heroes, she laughed softly.

“I’m no hero,” Michele said.

After the storm passed, the employees and customers climbed out of the back of the store and made their way to the front.

Michele’s daughter was staying with Michele’s mother, who lives on South Iowa Avenue. When Michele got to the front of the store and saw the destruction, she took off running to her mother’s home.

“When I saw the cement blocks from the parking lot laying in the street, and the power lines down, I just took off running,” she said. “I was running and crying and crying.”

Fortunately, both Michele’s mother and her daughter were alive. The house was destroyed, but they were safe.

It’s a nice story. To a point.

While Michele’s family is safe and her home is intact, she faces an uncertain future. Dillons officials have not yet made a decision on whether they will rebuild the Joplin store. Store employees will be paid for the last week they worked and for two additional weeks. After that, Michele will be without a paycheck.

More importantly, Michele will be without her company health insurance at the end of June. Michele has three children. Her youngest son has leukemia and must take chemotherapy treatments, and likely will for the rest of his life. Treatments run around $18,000.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Michele said tearfully.

Sheila Lowrie, a Dillons spokeswoman, said the company has offered its Joplin employees possible jobs at other stores. The company has set up a mobile resource center to meet with employees, and it is offering additional financial assistance through the company’s Helping Hands program.

But that news doesn’t ease Michele’s worries. Relocating to another city is not something she wants to do. But she desperately needs health insurance, and she desperately needs a job.

Michele knows she is not alone. She also knows that compared with many others, she and her family are fortunate. That’s why reaching out for help is something she is reluctant to do.

“I feel bad,” she said. “I have my home, and my family is accounted for. I would feel guilty taking anything from somebody who really needs it.”

Making matters worse, in Michele’s mind, is that last year she moved into a house built by the folks with Habitat for Humanity. To her way of thinking, she’s already been given more than she deserves.

But the thing is, this isn’t about deserving. This is about needing.

A terrible, terrible thing happened. There is no one to blame. All we can do is help those who need help, knowing that if things were reversed, they would help us.

I told Michele to at least stop by the Dillons Resource Center on Friday. I told her not to be feel guilty asking for help.

She reluctantly told me she would.

“But I don’t want to take anything from somebody who really needs it more that I do,” she said again.

Lynn is right. Michele is a hero.

Do you have an idea for Mike Pound’s column? Call him at 417-623-3480, ext. 7259, or email him at mpound@joplinglobe.com.

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Tornado: Mike Pound