JOPLIN, Mo. —
Grayson Ford and his girlfriend, Hannah Sparks, had spent the May 22 afternoon swimming at Ford’s pool with their siblings. He lived near 32nd Street and Schifferdecker Avenue.
Sparks received a text message on her phone from her mother warning her that a storm was headed her way. She said she didn’t take it seriously until it started getting windy.
“You could see the pool chairs start flipping,” she said.
The couple headed to the basement where they heard the train-like sound of the tornado. They heard glass shattering and felt the pressure change. No one at Ford’s house was injured that night, but the tornado that wiped out nearly one-third of Joplin also hit Ford’s house that day.
Eleven months later, Ford and Sparks are still a couple. The Joplin High School students will head to their second prom together. Sparks’ dress is a shiny royal blue and Ford will have a tie to match.
Tonight’s prom will be anything but the typical rite of passage for those planning to attend the JHS prom.
“I’m just excited to see what they’ve done,” Sparks said. “Everyone spent so much time working on it and trying to make it amazing and special for us since we’ve gone through so much. They’ve gone out of their way to do this for us.”
Ford and Sparks plan to have pictures taken before prom at a friend’s house, then head to dinner at Crabby’s with a group of about 12 friends. After prom, they will attend Project Prom, where students can sign up in groups for different activities throughout the night and early morning.
Sparks said that what they went through in the past year has brought them closer together. She’ll graduate in a few weeks and plans to attend a local cosmetology school. Ford will have another year of high school to complete.
“I’m happy we weren’t anywhere besides the basement,” Ford said. “We’re thankful. It brought us closer in an event that will hopefully only happen once in our lifetime.”
Junior Sarah Ingle’s prom date is one of her best friends, junior John Zippro. The two have been friends since sixth grade.
“I would rather have fun with my friends and not have any pressure with an awkward date,” Ingle said.
Ingle rode out the May 22 tornado in the bathroom with her family at their apartment at the Plaza Apartments behind the 15th Street Walmart, and Zippro was there soon after to make sure they were safe.
“The first person I could think about once driving on Range Line was Sarah,” Zippro said. “I saw Walmart was gone. I could only see devastation and you can only expect the worst and hope for the best. I was just really eager to see that her and her family were OK. Once I saw her, there might have been tears.”
After he got to the apartments, Zippro helped pull some residents out of the rubble and went to Walmart with Ingle to help. Now, nearly a year later, Ingle, Zippro and the rest of their group of about 10 students plan to have their pictures taken downtown and have dinner at Wasabi before heading to prom.
“It signifies everybody coming together,” Ingle said. “Everything was shattered and now everything is rebuilding, so it’s a new beginning for everybody. It’s bringing us into next year and that’s a whole year without the tornado. When we get older, we’re not going to say it was just regular high school. We’re going to have to talk about the tornado and how our school got blown away pretty much.”
Ingle said that she is now at peace with what happened on May 22.
“It’s a part of our lives and we can’t dwell on it,” Ingle said. “It’s always going to be a part of you.”
Plans for prom began last fall. Because all of the previous years’ decorations were lost in the storm, Amber Travis, prom sponsor, volleyball coach and social studies teacher, wrote a letter to Melissa Blayton, a special-events planner. Blayton began helping on Jan. 2. This year’s theme is “Once Upon A Time: A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”
There will be three rooms decorated differently, including an Aladdin-themed room, an Alice in Wonderland-themed room and a princess-themed room.
Junior Gabrielle Clark, who is on the prom planning committee, said her favorite room will probably be the Alice in Wonderland-themed room. The students picked the theme
“We all grew up with Disney princesses, and at a young age all the girls wanted to be princesses, so I think this is going to be pretty special,” Clark said.
There has been no confirmation of special guests at the prom. The dance begins at 8 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Convention Center.
On Thursday, seniors received prom T-shirts to write their personal messages on. Some wrote words of inspiration, while others just wanted to tell their story and the story of Joplin. Students were able to pick up free flowers for the prom on Friday night. DJ Snacks and DJ Sam the Apprentice from Kissin 92.5 FM will be disc jockeys, and the cover band Doo Frrogly will also play.
Chelsea Clinton — daughter of former President Bill Clinton and current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — stopped by during prom decorating on Friday for a piece she’s doing as a correspondent for NBC Nightly News. Several national media outlets are expected to attend the prom.
Travis said that this year’s prom will be the biggest in the school’s history. Decorating began Thursday night.
“It’s been a relief that so many have wanted to help and put the pressure off of us, donation-wise and service-wise,” Travis said. “We haven’t had to be as stressed because we have that support.”
Travis said that Blayton, who started the Joplin Prom Project and has organized a lot of the donations, will try to continue to make the prom big for future Joplin juniors and seniors.
“We will do our best to get the same kind of treatment for every class that was a part of this tornado,” Travis said.
Clark said she’s thankful for all of the donations and extra help.
“I’m really proud of Ms. Travis for putting in all the extra effort for an amazing prom and to take everybody’s mind off of what happened, and I’m just excited to see the finished product,” Clark said.
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For parents watching and students attending, use hashtag #JoplinProm to share photos.