by Jessica Langdon
LENEXA — Eighth-graders at Holy Trinity School here signed up, dug in, got their hands dirty — and taught their teacher Randy Weber just exactly what they’re made of.
As emails flew back and forth between organizers and 35 kids signing up for a mission trip this summer to help tornado-stricken Joplin, Weber started to worry about logistics.
But then the history teacher realized something about these kids.
“The higher you set the bar,” said Weber, “the more they rise to the occasion.”
And rise to the occasion, they did.
About half of the eighth-grade class loaded into 11 cars on July 11 for a two-day trip to Joplin. There, they picked up debris, cleaned, sorted donations at a Catholic school, hauled items, and met kids — just regular eighth-graders like themselves — who have survived devastation many can only imagine.
“I learned that wherever you go, no matter what happens to you,” Holy Trinity eighth-grader Michaela Stompoly said, “you’re always going to have tremendous support.”
A huge response
For most of the Holy Trinity students, it was just another day of summer vacation when the email arrived.
In it, Holy Trinity’s associate principal Lisa Blaes invited the entire class of incoming eighth-graders on a mission trip.
Michaela was watching TV when her dad told her about it.
“Cool. . . . I want to go really bad,” she told him.
When later asked why, her answer was simple: “Because I knew that it would help people a lot. And if this had happened to me or people in my community, then I would want people to help me.”
Alexis Cucchiara started getting text messages asking if she was going. Her initial “I don’t know” quickly turned into a resounding “Yes!”
“It sounds like a good way to help people, and it also sounds like a lot of fun,” she said.
The teens knew all about the EF5 tornado that devastated Joplin May 22, killing more than 150 people, injuring hundreds more, and tearing apart even more homes, businesses and other buildings. They worried for the people.
Some of them have family ties there. Ryan Lobb’s mom grew up not far away in Pittsburg, and the Lobb family made their own trip to the area not long after the tornado. But Ryan was eager to go again on the mission trip with his class. Alexis’ mom is also from the area, and Weber and Holy Trinity resource teacher Mary Pintar grew up in Pittsburg.
The tornado struck Joplin the Sunday before the last week of school. That didn’t leave much time for a fundraiser, but Weber was determined to do one at Holy Trinity. He went to each classroom to “make it personal.”
And he promised a prize he knew everyone would want to the class that brought in the most money.
The incentive? Shaving his head.
“Competition” plus “teacher humiliation” added up to a huge success. Instead of raising the $2,000-$3,000 they expected, the classes collected closer to $8,000 — and all the teachers got to “take a whack” at his hair. Weber thinks the “making it personal” part sparked an interest in doing more.
Their success got Weber and Blaes thinking about a mission trip.
Pintar and her husband went to Joplin this summer. At the end of an intense day of work, she approached the Catholic Charities office there to see what the eighth-graders from Holy Trinity could do.
What came of it, Holy Trinity principal Martha Concannon said, was a chance for these students to be “the hands and feet of Jesus for Joplin.”
Hard work, but worth it
When the students arrived in Joplin, Grace Vedock was stunned.
Was this the city she’d heard so much about? She saw just a normal town — at least in part of the city.
“There was literally this line,” she said. On one side, everything looked just fine. On the other, all you saw “were twisted trees and remains of houses and foundations and rubble. . . . It was like the tornado stayed in one place and just hovered there, and it just ripped and ripped and ripped everything.”
The group got to work, never complaining about the 100-plus-degree heat or any wait time between assignments.
“The first day we went to a farm, and we helped pick up debris from that farm,” said Michaela.
The youngsters also spent time at St. Mary Elementary School and St. Peter Middle School, and lunched with some of Joplin’s Catholic eighth-graders. Several had lost their homes — but they chatted like any other teens on all the subjects most important to that age group.
“We could relate with them, just talking,” Kayla Staley said.
“Then we heard their stories.”
The Joplin kids’ accounts of the tornado’s devastation struck the young volunteers in different ways.
“I was surprised how they weren’t totally sad,” said Elizabeth Arroyo.
Likewise, Jack Lind was struck by their smiles.
“They looked just kind of like us, like regular people,” he said. You wouldn’t guess meeting them that they had been through so much in the past few months.
They’re the kind of people you’d like to have met under different circumstances, said Alexis.
Grace was impressed with their spirit — their optimism. The Joplin teens were the same age as the volunteers; some of them had lost everything, yet they were in such good spirits.
“It made us a lot more positive,” said Ryan.
One of the Holy Trinity students kept thinking about his faith through it all, said Blaes. He knew he would have that to rely on if something like this ever happened in his own life.
Finding hope and faith
Most of the St. Mary School building had crumbled under the force of the tornado.
While the group was working there, Blaes heard a story about one of the St. Mary’s students — a little girl. A few weeks before the tornado struck, she asked her kindergarten teacher whether the parish’s cross would be destroyed if there were a tornado there. The teacher told her she didn’t know, but hoped not.
Indeed, the large cross still stands tall above the rubble, as if unaffected by the EF5 winds.
“The power of God is always kind of evident,” said Kayla.
Michaela remembered seeing a sign outside another one of the city’s schools. Where the word “Joplin” had once been spelled out on the sign, only the “o” and “p” remained.
“Someone put an ‘H’ and an ‘e’ so it said ‘Hope,’” said Michaela.
Hope was only one of the virtues of the people of Joplin, however. Gratitude was another.
No matter how small the job performed seemed to the visiting teens, the people of Joplin were grateful.
“Everyone was so appreciative of everything we did,” Alexis said.
“It was just a moving experience,” Grace agreed.
Weber talked with some of the students the night they stayed in Joplin and could tell the experience was hitting home.
They seemed to be seeing that material things aren’t the important things in life.
“Family and friends,” he said, “that’s what’s more important.”
“You really are appreciative of all the little things,” Kayla said.
“You don’t know what you have and how important it is until you don’t have it anymore,” Michaela agreed.
The students held onto the T-shirts they wore on the two days of the trip. Specially designed, the shirts have messages on the back.
“All works of love are works of peace,” reads one.
The other says, “Wheresoever you go, go with your heart.”
Ryan noticed that even the people who suffered terrible losses in the Joplin tornado are thinking far beyond their own circumstances.
“Everyone in the community is just trying to help everyone else,” he said.
Even more of Holy Trinity’s eighth-graders wanted to go on the trip to Joplin, but the timing didn’t work out. One of the challenges now will be to engage the entire class and make everyone feel a part of the mission. The school is already looking at more trips to the area, and the possibility of adopting a class and having teachers here help the teachers there.
Even a couple of days in Joplin showed these young volunteers the work is far from finished.
“It’s going to be a long process,” said Pintar. “I hope that people will take away from this that Joplin needs continued support for a long time.”
And Joplin folks need look no farther than Lenexa for more assistance — the Holy Trinity students would go back in a heartbeat.
“They still need a lot of help,” Jack concluded hopefully.