In a commencement speech Monday, President Obama told the graduating seniors in Joplin, Mo., that the tornado that ripped through their town a year ago revealed in its aftermath “the power of community.”
The tornado, which hit the town on May 22, 2011, destroyed several schools and killed 161 people. A portion of a mall had to be converted to classroom space for the town’s high school students. The president, who repeated the refrain “you’re from Joplin” several times in the speech, told the students to remember the generosity that helped rebuild the southwestern Missouri town after the devastation:
So you will remember, you will know, just how many people there are who see life differently; those who are guided by kindness and generosity and quiet service. You'll remember that in a town of 50,000 people, nearly 50,000 more came in to help in the weeks after the tornado—perfect strangers who've never met you and didn't ask for anything in return. One of them was Mark Carr, who drove 600 miles from Rocky Ford, Colo., with a couple of chainsaws and his three little children. One man traveled all the way from Japan, because he remembered that Americans were there for his country after last year's tsunami, and he wanted the chance, he said, "to pay it forward." There were AmeriCorps volunteers who have chosen to leave their homes and stay here in Joplin till the work is done. And then there was the day that Mizzou's football team rolled into town with an 18-wheeler full of donated supplies. And of all places, they were assigned to help out on Kansas Avenue. And while they hauled away washing machines and refrigerators from the debris, they met a woman named Carol Mann, who had just lost the house she lived in for 18 years. And Carol didn't have a lot. She works part-time at McDonald's. She struggles with seizures, and she told the players that she had even lost the change purse that held her lunch money. So one of them, one of the players, went back to the house, dug through the rubble, and returned with the purse with $5 inside. As Carol's sister said, "So much of the news that you hear is so negative. But these boys renewed my faith that there are so many good people in the world." That's what you'll remember. Because you're from Joplin.
Education Week has written extensively about the rebuilding efforts in Joplin, including my recent article on plans for new school buildings to reflect changing education priorities, and my colleague Ian Quillen’s story in February about the district’s rollout of laptops for all of its high school students.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.