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For Joplin, creative responses to tornado never stop

Effort to create the “prom of their dreams” is just one creative response to the tragedy.

By LAURA BAUER
The Kansas City Star

Megan Green sat inside her cluttered office on the Rockhurst University campus, talking about a tornado-torn town three hours away, when a student interrupted.

Cradling an armload of dresses, she added the formals to a heaping pile near the door.

“Here’s another seven,” said Blair Harms, 19, a psychology major from Omaha, Neb. “Some were mine, a couple from my sister and one from my roommate.”

For more than two weeks, people have been loading Green up with fancy dresses, some worn just once at proms or college formals, even weddings. Many are short or tea-length; others drape to the floor. Next month, they’ll all be displayed smorgasbord-fashion, along with donated shoes and jewelry, for Joplin high school seniors and other students.

The “shopping” event is just one part of what organizers hope will make this year’s Joplin High prom memorable for teens who have been through so much since the May 22 tornado. These hundreds of donated dresses, along with a glitzy prom put on by a swarm of volunteers, represent just one more gesture from strangers wanting to help the southwest Missouri city.

Since that Sunday night in May, Joplin has seen immeasurable kindness. Early on, an estimated 100,000 volunteers, truckloads of clothes and supplies, and millions of dollars flooded the city. Then came bikes for kids ... specially made shelves to house hundreds of donated books ... homemade clothes and scarves with messages from strangers halfway across the country.

Now, as another season approaches and new needs surface for uninsured and low-income tornado victims, many in Joplin find themselves grateful that people haven’t forgotten about their city, where 161 died and 900 were injured. That people realize their struggles continue.

“It’s hard to describe the overwhelming feeling of gratitude we have,” said Kim Vann, director of community development for Joplin schools. “The fact that people from across the world are still looking at the needs we have and are caring about their fellow human beings is an inspiration for the rest of us. It makes us feel like we’re not in this alone.”

She saw it in the summer, when people donated clothes and food. In August, when school supplies came in from across the country. And she sees it now, as pleas for a child’s bike or business clothes for a working mom are quickly answered.

When word got out that the prom committee didn’t have the money to put on the yearly event, people wanted to help. Before long, Kansas City’s Melissa Blayton created an “ambush team” to make the dance happen. Students learned earlier this month — through a video message taped by singer Katy Perry — that they were in for an unforgettable night.

Prom sponsor Amber Travis, who teaches social studies at Joplin High School, grew up in Stockton, Mo., a town 80 miles northeast of Joplin that was struck by a tornado in 2003. She’s used to people wanting to help, but is amazed that the giving in Joplin doesn’t stop.

“You would think that people would forget and move on,” Travis said. “But every day, people give something.”

For Green, just the thought of watching Joplin seniors combing through the dresses next month makes weeks of campaigning for donations — even going to sororities and organizations in the light-blue dress she wore a decade ago — worth it.

“I think of how much fun I had at my prom,” said Green, 28, the assistant director of student development at Rockhurst. “And to think of them and not being able to have that memorable night after the year they had. … This is simple. We can do this for them.”

New season, new needs

The phone calls offering help haven’t stopped.

Though they no longer come every day, Principal Debbie Fort said her Washington Elementary School gets as many as two or three a week. Fort’s old school, Irving Elementary, was destroyed in the storm, and many of her students lost everything.

“When I left my office today, a Girl Scout Brownie troop was on the phone with my secretary wondering what they could do,” Fort said Thursday. “The other day, a fifth-grade class called and wanted to adopt one of our fifth-grade classes.”

The help is definitely needed, she said. As spring approaches, teachers and staffers across the district are hearing from students in need.

Children start to put away coats and sweaters, and then need shorts and tennis shoes and flip-flops.

“Seasons change and kids grow,” Vann said.

As families finally move into new homes, out of their families’ residences or rental properties, they need beds and couches, maybe washers and dryers and dishes.

“The good news is families are getting back into homes of some sort. But now they are coming up short,” Vann said.

Debbie Leatherman, a longtime special-education teacher in the Joplin district, knows that people will continue to help. There hasn’t been a time in the last nine months, she said, that volunteers or organizations or complete strangers weren’t there.

Not just for her students, but for her and her husband. They lost everything in the storm.

“There were people who came even before I knew I had a need,” Leatherman said. “People who brought me a washcloth, and I’d ask, ‘Why did you bring me a washcloth?’ Ten minutes later, I needed a washcloth.”

She keeps an aqua-and-navy shawl in her classroom, one that a group out of Cincinnati crocheted for women in Joplin. Whenever she’s cold, she grabs her shawl, which included a note: “When you’re having a hard time and feeling low, then please wrap this shawl around you and know that you are being prayed for and loved.”

With the donations, there’s often a note or comment from those wanting to offer something to the people who lost so much.

A woman in Chicago sent money so children at Washington Elementary could have matching school T-shirts. A woman in Georgia bought tennis shoes for each of Fort’s students.

“She said, ‘Every kid needs a new pair of shoes to go to school with,’ ” Fort said.

And then there’s Susan Stewart of Pittsburg, Kan., just 25 miles from Joplin. Stewart, who is nationally known in seamstress circles, knew she didn’t have the skills or tools to help rebuild a house or clear a lot of debris. But she could organize an effort to fit little girls with a new, handmade dress they could wear the first day of school.

“I remember I always had a new dress,” Stewart said. “My dad would take a picture of me — that was significant to me.”

She hoped “Project First Day” would draw a few hundred dresses. In the end, seamstresses from across the country sent 1,500 dresses, most pinned with handwritten notes.

Many girls at Fort’s school showed up that first day wearing their fancy dresses and new tennis shoes. Stewart loves the idea that the children had an outfit made especially for them.

“Every girl wants to be a princess every once in a while,” Stewart said. “I was doing it for little girls, and now they’re doing prom dresses for teens.”

‘Prom of their dreams’

The plea started with a letter.

Travis, the prom sponsor, worried that the students couldn’t put on the dance they wanted. Typically, they need to raise at least $10,000 during the year. But with the chaos of this school year, in a different building and a community in recovery, they weren’t able to raise enough.

Plus, most of the materials, supplies and decorations from years past had been in the basement of the high school, which was destroyed.

At one point, Superintendent C.J. Huff told Travis to call Blayton, a celebrity makeup artist who has helped in Joplin before. She had said she wanted to do something for this year’s prom.

So Travis wrote Blayton in December.

“These students don’t ever ask for anything and are grateful for everything that has come our way,” Travis wrote. “Numerous donations have been pouring in, however, the Prom has only what was left in our budget after last school year. These kids, especially the Seniors, deserve the Prom of their dreams.”

Travis thought maybe Blayton would know someone who could donate decorations or provide some help.

“I wasn’t expecting a full-on ‘Your whole prom will be paid for, don’t worry about it,’ ” the prom sponsor said.

But that’s what she and her students got.

“Somehow, someway I wanted to give them a prom,” Blayton said Friday. “I want them to have a cool end of the year.”

Blayton spent days on the phone contacting other professionals to volunteer and formed an “ambush team,” and everything — decorations, food, flowers, photography, DJ and band — will be donated. The goal is for volunteers to continue the help for proms to come.

Leatherman, the special-education teacher, knows the importance of what Blayton and other volunteers are doing. After being the prom sponsor years ago, she saw a need to get donated dresses for girls of low-income families. So she started Operation Fairy Godmother more than a decade ago.

Last year alone, the operation outfitted 350 girls and about 80 boys in their southwest Missouri area, the vast majority from Joplin. After the storm, the need only grew.

“This community was absolutely amazing in providing the dresses we needed each year,” Leatherman said. “They pulled dresses from their closets. … After the tornado, the community looked at each other and said, ‘What closets do we pull from now?’ ”

That’s where Green and other members of Blayton’s “ambush team” came in. As of last week, Green thought she already had enough donated dresses for the senior girls. Once they’ve chosen their dresses, other high school students and community members can go through what’s left.

Soon, Green will get more dresses from St. Louis and two colleges in Springfield. Other donations keep coming in at Rockhurst.

Green admits she’s excited to see what each girl chooses. She’ll especially keep an eye on the 10 dresses she donated.

“I’m hoping I can meet that person and say, ‘Hey, that’s my dress,’ ” said Green, who thinks students will be surprised by what Blayton’s team of volunteers has in store for April 21.

“When they see what we’re going to do for their prom, they’ll remember it for a lifetime,” she said. “It’ll be a sight to be seen.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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