By Mike Pound
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Billy Staples has some kind of energy.
A former corporate executive with AT&T, former actor, former award-winning teacher, and current author and motivational speaker, Billy likes to talk.
“I write books,” Billy said as we chatted by phone Wednesday morning. “I could go on and on forever.”
As Billy explains it, he was in Dallas, Texas, earlier this month talking to high school students who had been displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina. One girl spent about 20 minutes telling Billy about the horrors she witnessed in the New Orleans projects in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane. The girl also wondered why it has taken so long to rebuild her hometown. Billy, of course, didn’t have much of an answer.
At the end of her story, the girl asked Billy if he had heard about the tornadoes in Alabama and in Joplin. He said that he had. And then the girl asked him if he planned to visit Joplin, and if so, she wanted to know if he would reach out to the kids in Joplin like he reached out to her.
“Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out her lunch money. She handed me $3 and 25 cents and said, ‘Then let me be the first to donate,’” Billy wrote in a Facebook posting.
Billy drove to Joplin the next day and, through his contacts, started raising money. And then he started looking for ways to use that money to help people in Joplin. One of the first people he met with in Joplin was police Chief Lane Roberts, who introduced him to Paula Bone, public affairs officer. With help from Lane and Paula, Billy was able to identify people who needed help.
“One thing he was adamant about,” Paula said about Billy, “was that people didn’t know he was going to give them money at first. He wanted to meet with them first, and he wanted to meet with people who were truly victimized by the storm. He wanted to meet with people who suffered family losses or who had a huge burden placed on them.”
When I spoke with Billy on Wednesday, he told me about some of the folks he and his organization were able to help. He told me about a young man named Chuck who has Down syndrome. Chuck lost everything he had in the tornado. In particular, Chuck lost his prized collection of baseball memorabilia.
It just so happens that Billy has written two baseball books for teenagers that were published by the folks who publish the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, and therefore has a lot of contacts with Major League Baseball. Billy made a few calls and is now replacing the items Chuck lost.
Billy met a woman who lost her home and had literally been sleeping at her husband’s bedside at an area hospital. On the day Billy met her, the woman had just found out that her husband was being moved to another hospital at 8 p.m.
“When we met, it was 6 p.m.,” Billy said. “She had no idea where she was going to live. We were able to pay for a motel room for her for two weeks.”
Keep in mind, Billy didn’t tell these stories to pat himself on the back. He said he has been able to help folks because other people have donated money to make that help possible.
“It’s really just one story at a time,” he said. “Trying to see to it that one family has fewer worries. It’s about paying if forward.”
When the time is right, Billy would like to hold a baseball camp in Joplin for kids affected by the storm. He said he has gotten commitments to help from former St. Louis Cardinals reliever Josh Kinney, who now pitches in the Chicago White Sox organization and lives in the offseason in Springfield, and from former Kansas City Royals players Willie Wilson and Jim Eisenreich.
Before the tornado, Billy had no ties to the community. He had only one reason to drop what he was doing and try to help: a high school girl in Dallas who knew what it was like to live through tragedy and who asked him to help kids who were going through what she went through.
As Billy said: “It’s about paying it forward.”