On May 22, 2011, with storm systems brewing over Illinois that night, Sue Jarvi and other family members sought shelter in the basement of her Rockford home.
“As soon as we got the all clear, we went upstairs and turned on the news immediately and they were talking about Joplin.”
Jarvi continued to watch news about Joplin over the next few days.
“I was heartbroken,” she said.
A few days later, Jarvi Googled, “Joplin.”
“It just occurred to me that I needed to come here,” said the 60-year-old grandmother. “I thought maybe I could make sandwiches or something.”
According to the city of Joplin, there have been 153,970 volunteers such as Jarvi who have offered to help in Joplin, coming from all over the United States and as far as Japan and the United Arab Emirates. They have contributed more than 950,000 hours so far.
Some, like Jarvi, have gone above and beyond the role of making sandwiches. Call them Super Volunteers, who haven’t left Joplin’s side. Jarvi has been in Joplin since her arrival just days after the storm, playing a key role distributing the truck loads of donated goods and supplies that have come in from around the world.
“She came here knowing no one, and has undoubtedly changed the community’s recovery through her efforts,” said Kate Massey, director of community impact at United Way of Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas. “She has been a guiding force behind our Multi-Agency Warehouse.”
‘A major purpose’
When the tornado hit, Jarvi was not working for the first time in her adult life. All of her career had been spent as a secretary in a hospital setting, the most recent position being as an executive assistant to a hospital president, but she needed a break.
She considers herself an independent woman with a taste for adventure, and she had the financial freedom to make the decision to respond to the disaster.
Her Memorial Day Google search took her to the Americorps website, where she learned what was needed and signed up. She knew lodging would be challenging to find.
“I packed my things and just threw my sleeping bag in and thought, ‘Well, something will work out.’ I like adventure,” she said.
She made the 600-mile, 10-hour trip by car and spent her first night in Joplin in a sleeping bag camped out with hundreds of other volunteers in the MSSU parking lot.
“I felt safe. There were lots of people doing it,” she said.
Upon checking in at MSSU the next day, she learned help was needed at what would become the Multi-Agency Warehouse. A centralized distribution center operated by Pioneer Freight, it was capable of handling the enormous volume of donated supplies arriving in Joplin every day.
“Seventh Day Adventists are experienced in organizing supplies after disasters, and immediately put their software program and system in place,” Jarvi said.
She began at the warehouse unloading supplies and sorting donations for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Adventists along with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency soon agreed that her talent for organization and efficiency gained from her years as an administrative assistant would be the perfect fit for the warehouse office.
“They agreed to reimburse my living expenses if I stayed, because they needed help,” she said.
With as many as 100 volunteers arriving each day to help sort and distribute, Jarvi armed herself with spreadsheets and clipboards to keep them organized and fed, and to keep supplies moving in and back out again to points of distribution, such as Joplin Family Worship, Catholic Charities and Rebuild Joplin.
“I collapsed each evening, but I was so happy. I was so gratified. I had a major purpose,” she said. “It was just kind of the thing I had always wanted, that I was always missing.”
Mark Shank, vice president of operations for Pioneer Warehouse, watched Jarvi at work many of those days.
“She is like a gal Friday,” he said. “She is a connection hub for all the distribution points in the city.”
In the weeks that followed, Jarvi found lodging in Carthage, Neosho and eventually with local families who had a room to spare. For eight months, she lived at the Holiday Inn.
By December 2011, the volume of donations and volunteers had tapered off, but there still was work to be done: Large corporations like Tempurpedic and Wal-Mart continued to send items such as mattresses, bedspreads and household goods.
So Jarvi found a Joplin apartment of her own in May — a year after the storm — knowing that she would be needed longer. These days, her main task is taking orders for things from points of distribution that those displaced by the storm or still rebuilding need.
“Windows, mattresses, you name it,” she said.
She makes it back to Rockford every six to eight weeks.
“Because I need a fix,” she laughed, referring to her need to see her children and grandchildren.
And they have come to Joplin to visit a few times, including Easter this year, which helped them to see first-hand what Jarvi was doing and why it is important to her.
“They can tell how much this means to me, that I have been able to stay away from them this long,” she said.
Establishing a connection to Christ Church of Oronogo and making friendships in Joplin helped it feel like a home away from home.
“I feel like I’ve made a life here,” she said. “I feel really bonded.”
But her time here soon will come to an end; her last day at the warehouse is Nov. 6, then she’ll pack up and head home to Rockford. Unlike volunteers who have come to Joplin for a few days or a week at a time, Jarvi said she feels blessed to have seen the progress made in 18 months.
“I am amazed by it. You’re just so busy on your day to day... but now as you look back, and drive through town, and see the building going on, and the fact that less than 200 families remain in the FEMA trailers ... I know what it took, and it took so much.”
‘More in store’
Sue Jarvi said she plans to return to Joplin in the future to check the progress of the recovery and eat the local barbecue of which she’s become so fond.
“You meet the best of humanity when you are in a place like this. The attitude here is just amazing. People have dug in and worked hard. I just can’t help but love it, and love them. It’s not going to be easy to leave.”
But beyond that, she isn’t sure what’s next.
“I don’t know. The good Lord has more in store for me. There will be another adventure.”