By Emily Younker and Scott Meeker
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.”