Joplin: Sowing the Seeds of Service
Eighty-four Chico State students and four faculty members from Construction Management boarded buses for the airport and headed to Joplin, Mo., in the early morning hours of March 14. Their mission was to rebuild four houses of the 8,000 structures that were destroyed by the May 22, 2011 tornado.
They had eight days to do it.
Once they gathered in their neon yellow shirts, they moved like a swarm of worker bees, said David Shirah, one of the faculty advisors to the Blitz Build Joplin project. And it was a swarm to be reckoned with: everywhere they went, people stopped them to ask who they were and where they were going.
“People were astonished that these college students would give up their spring breaks to do service,” said Shirah. “Some of them were literally moved to tears.”
And that gratitude only increased as they set down in the Kansas City Airport and reached Joplin. In the airport, they were welcomed over the loudspeakers and thanked for their willingness to come to Missouri. The gratitude—expressed in extreme generosity and heartfelt words of thanks—made some of the deepest impressions on the students.
“I’ve never had anyone thank me so much in my life,” said student volunteer Robert Duran.
“Bob Covey, the owner of the house we were working on, brought us pizza the last day and hundreds of dollars of fireworks,” said student volunteer Ian Walling. “He was so appreciative of what we had done for us. He sent us off with fireworks!"
The students and faculty had spent months preparing for the project—raising money, planning logistics, procuring supplies, organizing work teams, and planning for the weather. On the day they started work, there was record-breaking heat. Everyone got sunburned. By the next day, the rains started and the crews were in for record-breaking rain. It poured for the remainder of the trip, with Joplin receiving three times the normal rainfall for the year.
The volunteers were working 12- and 13-hour days in the rain and mud. (See faculty member Mike Borzage’s notes.) “People were slipping and falling down. We were so covered with mud that, in a store, the clerk asked us if we’d all fallen down,” said Taylor Samuels, a senior CM major. “I’ve never done such hard physical work in such demanding conditions in my life.”
Although the students had seen pictures of a devastated Joplin, they were astounded at the destruction. Whole blocks were leveled and left as fields filled with rubbish. “A town that used to look a lot like Chico, with an umbrella of trees,” said Borzage, “was leveled until it looked like a prairie. In one woman’s yard, alone, 50 tree root-balls were removed.”
There were poignant signs everywhere left by the tornado: “Homework assignments plastered against a cyclone fence, transparencies from an overhead projector, a blanket still hanging in a tree like a flag of surrender,” said Shirah.
The student volunteers had received the names and stories of the recipients before they left, but meeting them in person made many of them realize what an impact their service was making.
“To meet the owners and to see how we were really affecting their lives took me to a whole other level,” said Eli Andres, one of the student leaders on the team. “A mother and daughter came to the site where we were rebuilding the grandmother’s house. The little girl was walking around imagining where her room would be. It made it very real.”
The students agree that they received as much as or more than they gave. That realization changed their ideas about the nature of service: “You think you are going to give something to people in need,” said Walling. “You end up receiving more than you could imagine. I feel like I became part of the community. The owner invited me to come back whenever I could to stay with his family. He said he’d teach me how to hunt!”
The faculty who accompanied the students also experienced shifts in their ideas about their students. “I was really impressed watching the students take the responsibility of being in charge in stride,” said Borzage. “In class, we often push them toward the end of working in the field, but here they were actually doing it.”
“The students become colleagues,” said Shirah. “It makes teaching so much more fun to know them and have seen them applying skills that were only theory before.”
What motivated the students and kept them working 12- and 13-hour days until they completed what they set out to do? A sense of commitment to the community and to each other, the students said.
“We were driven by our determination to keep that commitment,” said Andres.
“We had good leadership. We set out to finish, no matter what. There was no way we’d let the homeowners and each other down,” said Duran.
Various people asked Shirah how Chico State got so many students to sacrifice their spring breaks. “We don’t get them to do it,” said Shirah. “It’s something they want to be part of. It’s part of the culture of service at Chico State. The projects planted a seed and then the seed flourished beyond our wildest expectations.”■
Read a Message from Joplin
Wednesday, March 22, 11:30 p.m.
Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications
Slideshow photos by Mike Borzage.