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