UNL students help rebuild Joplin, Mo.
Senior Environmental Specialist Dan Olsen supervises University of Nebraska-Lincoln students hauling timber as part of a recent cleanup effort at Joplin, Mo.
Story and photos by Ross Benes, NewsNetNebraska
A drenched Morgan Wisnieski had been standing in the rain, cutting wood siding for three hours when she realized she had three more hours to work in the downpour.
Unlike some of her peers, who were spending spring break partying in tropical locales or relaxing at home, the UNL sophomore was using her time off to help others. Despite the six hours of soggy conditions, Wisnieski felt she accomplished something: she was helping rebuild a house a damaged by last May’s Joplin tornado.
UNL students Stacy Selko and Lauren Schneider assemble furniture.
Wisnieski joined 38 other UNL students who were sent by UNL’s Center for Civic Engagement on alternative spring break trips to Joplin, Mo., Pine Ridge. S.D., and Denver. The center, which started in August 2011, expanded this year and sent more than 80 students on service-learning trips this year, including those who participated in the spring break trips, said Service Learning Director Linda Moody.
Thirteen UNL students went to Joplin to help the city recover from last May’s devastating EF5 tornado. The storm damaged more than 7,500 houses and took 162 lives.
UNL students contributed to Joplin’s recovery by rebuilding houses, cleaning up debris, assembling furniture and taking care of animals at a humane society. Relief Spark, a nonprofit disaster relief organization, coordinated most of the trip’s work and activities. Working alongside UNL students as part of Relief Spark’s rebuilding effort in Joplin were students from Grinnell College in Iowa and Cameron University in Oklahoma.
Although the tornado hit nearly a year ago, Joplin is still brimming with volunteers.
“The volunteer work has been fantastic since the tornado struck,” said Joplin resident Gene Wirick. “It seems like nearly every week there’s someone asking to help clean your yard or fix your house.”
Someone familiar with volunteering at disaster areas is UNL Senior Environmental Specialist Dan Olsen.
Olsen first volunteered to be an alternative spring break trip leader after Hurricane Katrina.
“I thought we had to do something to help out. I’ve never seen something this covered by the media,” he said. “The university was going to respond, and I work for the university, so I wanted to be a part of their effort to help.”
A sign where the Harmony Heights Church used to be informs members to meet at Bethel Assembly. The church was destroyed by last May’s tornado.
The Joplin trip marks the sixth time Olsen has been an alternative spring break trip leader. If it weren’t for these trips, he wouldn’t get the opportunity to work with students despite working as a university staff member for 21 years, he said. Even more importantly, if he didn’t go on these trips he wouldn’t hear the stories of those hit by tragedy.
“Sometimes you hear stories too personal to make the news,” he said. “And you can learn a ton from those stories.”
Susan Campbell, a Joplin resident who witnessed the storm, related one of the urban legends that’s often repeated in Joplin. When the tornado was destroying buildings, children saw beings with butterfly wings supporting several houses. The houses that were being supported by the angel-like beings, were not damaged by the tornado. What’s more telling, many children reported this phenomenon independently.
Campbell recently built a new home after hers was destroyed by the tornado. UNL students helped Campbell move and assemble furniture for her new residence.
A large cross remains standing despite the destruction of many buildings near Susan Campbell’s home.
Several students on the trip said interacting with tornado survivors like Campbell was one of the best parts of the Joplin experience.
“It was sad hearing some of their stories and seeing their houses destroyed, but it felt great to be able to help them,” said junior industrial engineer Jessica Blunk. “They were so grateful and it was inspiring to see how positive they were despite what they had been through.”
Trip leader Olsen believes it’s beneficial for both students and disaster victims alike to share their experiences. Victims benefit from having someone to tell their story to and students gain a deeper appreciation for others’ situations, he said.
Moody of the Center for Civic Engagement agreed.
“It’s difficult to get students to see a different point of view until they’re put into the experience,” she said.
Engaging communities in service-learning trips empowers students, Moody said. This fosters empathy and better understanding of others’ perceptions.
Sarah Brewer was one of many volunteers who said she received something special from the Joplin experience.
“I wanted to rebuild Joplin, but I think Joplin rebuilt me,” said the Cameron University senior English literature major. “It’s been a rough semester with a lot of ups and downs. So being around the people of Joplin and seeing their optimism has helped me restore my belief in the good of the human spirit.”