The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 2011 Joplin tornado

May 18, 2013

Virginia Laas

Virginia Laas isn’t an accountant or bookkeeper by trade.

But when the tornado caused significant damage to Joplin Schools, and subsequently spurred a massive landslide of donations to the district, Laas voluntarily stepped into those roles to fill a need that administrators were too busy to handle.

“I wanted to make some kind of long-term commitment, and the schools seemed an obvious place,” said Laas, a 1961 Joplin High School graduate and retired university professor of American history.

The tornado damaged or destroyed eight schools, as well as the Roi S. Wood Administration Building and the vacant former South Middle School. Hundreds of volunteers aided Joplin Schools during the summer that followed, putting together furniture and painting at the temporary schools and helping teachers organize their classrooms. By Jan. 1, 2012, more than 30,000 volunteer hours had been given to the district.

Many of those hours were from Laas, who was at the administration building — which was temporarily located at North Middle School — every day during the summer in 2011. It was a busy time, she said. The district was constantly receiving phone calls from people wanting to make donations, adopt a classroom, drop off supplies or volunteer their time.

Without any prior experience in disaster response, Laas jumped right in. While administrators were busily working to get temporary buildings ready for the start of school, she worked behind the scenes, helping to man the phones, answer callers’ questions and monitor the intake and distribution of donations.

“I think in some ways my strongest motivation was to help teachers,” she said. “We do all this talking about helping the kids, doing for the kids, which is true, but teachers who had lost their homes, lost their classrooms, all the materials, and the people who work regularly in the administration — they needed people just to do all the extra work so they could do their jobs.”

The days were long and hectic, and Laas said that by the time school started in August, she was exhausted. She left Joplin and spent nearly a month in the Pacific Northwest with her adult children to recuperate.

When she returned, school was in full swing, and she fell back into her routine with Joplin Schools. She said she was in the administration building on a regular basis, doing what she called “the detail work” of tracking monetary donations, which topped $7 million by January 2012.

“It was a matter of taking care of donations, of all those supplies, and making sure that teachers got what had been donated in their name,” she said. “Keeping track of all of that was really important.”

Kim Vann, the district’s director of community development, said she doesn’t know how her department would have operated after the tornado without Laas’ help.

“It didn’t matter if we needed her to organize files, of which we have many, obviously, because of all the gifts we received; if we needed her to send thank-you notes; if we needed her to sort through boxes of donated shirts or books — it just didn’t matter what the task was,” Vann said. “She did it with style, grace, and you could always count on the fact that it was done correctly.”


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May 2011 Joplin tornado
  • Local new-home construction catches up to previous pace

    After a slow start early in this fiscal year for Joplin, the construction of new houses has resumed at the pace that existed in fiscal year 2013, when permits for new houses averaged more than 16 per month. Since November, the beginning of Joplin’s fiscal year, permits for 118 houses have been issued for a total cost of $12.8 million. The average value has been about $108,000.

    June 11, 2014

  • 052212 unity walk1_72.jpg SLIDESHOW: One year later, One day of unity, updated Photos from a day of events commemorating the May 22, 2011 tornado anniversary

    May 22, 2012 1 Photo

  • 060314 Farmers rebuild 1_72.jpg Farmers Insurance writes manual based on experience from Joplin disaster recovery

    Joplin’s housing recovery from the 2011 tornado is one for the books. Jeff Dailey, CEO of Farmers Insurance, announced Tuesday that not only will Farmers Insurance stick with Rebuild Joplin to repair and replace the homes left on the local group’s waiting list, but the company also will kick off a similar recovery effort today for the city of Sea Bright, New Jersey, based on a book it has written to expedite disaster recovery that is based on its experience in Joplin.

    June 3, 2014 2 Photos

  • r052214butterflygarden.jpg New park feature opens on tornado anniversary to encourage healing

    Cunningham Park has become an emotional place for Pamela Praytor. The name of her son, Christopher Lucas, is engraved on a monument that stands in the park in memory of the 161 people who were killed in the May 2011 tornado. “Even though I cry when I come, it’s OK,” she said. “It’s part of the healing.”

    May 22, 2014 2 Photos

  • r051214greenbldgs3.jpg Home, business cited as examples of energy efficiency, strength

    Ramona and Charles “Hugh’’ Shields were not the least bit reluctant on Monday to open their new house in the tornado zone to a bunch of strangers who had a lot of questions. “I used to live in a house where I had to wear two pairs of socks in the winter to keep my feet warm — not anymore,’’ said Ramona Shields. “This house is nice and warm in the winter, and nice and cool in the summer.’’

    May 12, 2014 2 Photos

  • Mercy Health System to receive $23 million FEMA grant

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide Mercy Health System of Joplin with $23 million in public assistance funding by the end of the year. The disaster relief was announced Friday by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

    April 25, 2014

  • Respond With Love flower.jpg Joplin pays it forward with flowers; residents asked to return bulbs ‘fostered’ for other towns

    Suzan Morang’s front yard bloomed brightly last year from a colorful array of bulbs that she will happily pass on to someone else this year. Morang, 1207 Xenia Court, is a participant in America Responds With Love, a national nonprofit organization that distributes bulbs to disaster-stricken cities.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Creator of Joplin-based ‘Dear World’ exhibit features Boston bombing victims in new work

    The messages written on the skin of some Boston Marathon victims may be different, but Joplin residents will recognize the handwriting. Robert X. Fogarty, the creator of the “Dear World: From Joplin with Love” exhibit, took his signature style of photography and inspiration to Boston. Fogarty traveled to Joplin in 2011 and took pictures of community members with inspirational messages written on their bodies in black ink.

    April 21, 2014

  • r041414wildwood.jpg Opening of nursing home another recovery milestone

    Gladys Dutton has done a lot of things in her life, but Monday’s dedication of the Communities at Wildwood Ranch nursing home marked a first. “I’ve never cut a ribbon before,” she said. “I hope I do a good job.” Dutton was one of four residents to participate in the opening of the $8.5 million nursing center that eventually will be home to 120 people.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Joplin Redevelopment Corp. preparing for first property sale

    The first sale of property from the Joplin Redevelopment Corp. to Wallace Bajjali Development Partners is scheduled for May 16. The city staff will be working to prepare for that sale, it was discussed on Tuesday at a meeting of the JRC.

    April 9, 2014

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