JOPLIN, Mo. —
They’re known for their blue shirts.
Bright teal blue, worn by 70 people who, in the aftermath of the May 2011 tornado, fanned out across an otherwise bleak destruction zone to find those who needed emotional first aid.
Seven days a week since June 20, 2011, these “crisis workers,” as they call themselves, have knocked on doors, handed out fliers, attended memorial events and set up booths at Northpark Mall.
“I was at Taco Bell on Range Line, and a guy came up to me and said, ‘I need to talk to you,’” said Tom Tiegreen, a 68-year-old retiree who signed on after receiving an email from his church. “I was wearing the shirt, and he knew what it represented.”
What the shirts represented was Healing Joplin, a grant-funded program operated through Freeman Health System’s Ozark Center. The crisis workers were recognized at a luncheon Thursday at the Ramsay Building in downtown Joplin for their contributions during the past year.
This round of grants concludes at the end of June, and Ozark Center has applied for additional funding to continue the program. If a grant extension is approved, Healing Joplin would be able to operate at half its staffing level until September. The $3.8 million grant that funded Healing Joplin through June came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
When Andrea Holseth saw two women in the blue shirts on her front porch last October, she saw them as a possible solution to her son’s struggles. Her family, which includes her husband, Ed Holseth, and two children, 16-year-old Gavin Williamson and 7-year-old Brier Holseth, survived the tornado in their bathroom at 2424 S. Tyler Ave.
Although they walked out uninjured, the home had shifted six inches off its foundation and was ruined. Gone, too, were the homes of grandparents on both sides of the family, along with their car. Also destroyed was Joplin High School, where Williamson had completed his freshman year and was an athlete.
His mother said that immediately after the storm, the teen “became a man” through his actions in tending to the family’s needs. But when she drove him to see the school and baseball field where he had thrived, he broke down.
“It was heartbreaking,” Holseth said. “He lost everything he knew.”
In the following months, it was Williamson who would have the hardest time coping with his emotions. The family, living with friends and borrowing vehicles, was in limbo and lacked focus.
Finally, the family settled in a rental house. But in his sophomore year, Williamson’s grades slipped. He wouldn’t discuss the tornado, and he became louder and angrier.
Then the two women wearing the blue shirts arrived.
“I knew it was Healing Joplin,” said Williamson’s mother. “I shoved him out the door to talk with them and said, ‘I’ll be in here. You go talk.’”
The crisis workers, Stephanie Jordon and Tracy Eck, were making one of the program’s thousands of door-to-door stops.
Deborah Fitzgerald, the program’s director, described the workers as “trained listeners” who also could connect those they contacted with needed community resources.
They have visited homeless shelters, points of distribution, nursing homes, day care centers, businesses, service agencies and first responders. They have been present at the Walk of Unity on the tornado anniversary and other community events. They have done crisis debriefing for agencies, hospitals, schools, churches and the Joplin Housing Authority.
One of their approaches was to use Skills for Psychological Recovery, which is a worksheet approach to break down overwhelming loss into step-by-step actions so residents can get back on track.
“We also helped normalize emotions, to help them see that they were having normal responses, and sometimes you can just see them breathe a sigh of relief. It’s like, ‘I’m not the only one who’s feeling this way,’” said Teri Nunnally, a Healing Joplin crisis worker who signed up after surviving the tornado while on duty at St. John’s Regional Medical Center.
To date, Healing Joplin workers have spoken to more than 28,000 people, which includes 8,123 repeat visits, and have contacted 3,328 people in group settings and 5,141 people in family settings.
At Andrea Holseth’s house, they made repeat visits to her son and now are considered family friends.
“When you’re working through your own emotions, you don’t know how to fix someone else’s emotions,” Holseth said. “You have an entire family you have to be strong for. It did help for them to come, to continue to come — not just come once. Sometimes you need that friendly face that doesn’t have to be nice to you, they’re genuinely being nice to you.”
In the nonthreatening atmosphere of the front porch, her son opened up to Eck and Jordon, and in turn they built a rapport with Holseth.
She described Williamson today as “less angry, less frustrated.” His grades rebounded.
“I think his focus will start coming back,” she said. “And he’s playing baseball this summer for the Joplin Miners.”
Fitzgerald said she believes what most Joplin residents needed in the aftermath of the tornado was not professional mental help, but “someone to walk alongside them.”
“This little family of four is cared about by somebody,” she said. “I know there are people all over like us. I hope they met somebody like them, somebody wearing blue shirts.”
By the numbers
HEALING JOPLIN’S community crisis workers span in age from 20 to 68, and they have a range of career experiences. At the program’s peak, there were 70 of them. Currently, there are 55.
JOPLIN, Mo. —
They’re known for their blue shirts.
- May 2011 Joplin tornado
Farmers Insurance extends tornado recovery commitment
After investments that included stationing a company executive in Joplin for eight months last year, officials with Farmers Insurance said the company will continue its post-tornado commitment to Joplin in 2014. “We’re going to stay until the end,” said Doris Dunn, director of community relations for the company, on Wednesday. “That includes sending in another 100-plus volunteers and making some additional financial investments.”
- SLIDESHOW: One year later, One day of unity, updated Photos from a day of events commemorating the May 22, 2011 tornado anniversary
Author prepares for release of children’s book featuring heroic Joplin rescue dog
Carolyn Mueller is both a dog lover and a storyteller. So when she got the opportunity to write a story about a Joplin dog named Lily who helped search for survivors after the May 2011 tornado, she jumped on it. “Dogs like Lily can be heroes, too,” she said.
VIDEO: Lost photos claim day to be held at museum
National Disaster Photo Rescue and the Joplin Museum Complex have scheduled a public viewing and photo claim day for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, at the museum complex in Schifferdecker Park. The project, originally known as Lost Photos of Joplin, was organized in the weeks after the May 22, 2011, Joplin tornado to reunite storm victims with photos displaced by the storm.
Building-permit total since tornado nears $1 billion
The building of new homes in Joplin continues at an average pace of 16 to 18 per month, according to a building permit report released for December by the city of Joplin. Eighteen building permits for new homes were issued in both November and December. In fiscal year 2013, permits for new homes averaged more than 16 per month.
FEMA official recognized by city
A retiring official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who directed much of that agency’s response to Joplin’s 2011 tornado was recognized Friday by the city of Joplin. Richard Serino, the deputy administrator of FEMA, was presented a proclamation by Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean during his last visit to Joplin before he retires on Jan. 23.
Two Joplin men sentenced to two years for tornado fraud
Two Joplin men convicted in separate incidents of disaster fraud related to the May 22, 2011, tornado on Monday were sentenced to two years in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution. Andy Eric Brownlee, 32, was ordered by U.S. District Judge Brian C. Wimes. to pay $2,750 in restitution, and Leslie Lynn Williams, 54, was ordered to pay $1,196 in restitution.
Tornado fund board hears grant requests
Trustees of the Joplin Tornado First Response Fund heard proposals Tuesday from 11 organizations for grant funding. The board is to decide how to spend about $225,000 remaining in the fund in what may be the final round of grants. The fund was established shortly after the 2011 tornado to receive donations from those who wanted to give direct aid to Joplin for recovery.
Joplin community publishes book of tornado experiences
Leaders in the Joplin community have published a collection of stories about the 2011 tornado and the recovery efforts that followed. First-hand accounts for the book, titled “Joplin Pays It Forward,” were written by city and school leaders; officials from health care centers and public utility companies; leaders in the business and media communities; representatives of churches and nonprofit organizations; and individuals with federal, state and local disaster relief groups and agencies.
New fire stations being readied for opening
After 2 1/2 years in temporary quarters as a result of the 2011 Joplin tornado, firefighter crews are moving into newly built replacement stations ahead of schedule. Firefighters last week began preparing a new Station No. 2 at 2825 W. Junge Blvd. for occupancy. It replaces a station at 2216 S. Maiden Lane that was destroyed in the tornado.
- More May 2011 Joplin tornado Headlines
- Farmers Insurance extends tornado recovery commitment