Special Reports

Family displaced by Joplin tornado celebrates ‘Christmas in July’

The surprise was set.

Heather Wyrick would go to the empty house in Webb City, Mo., on Saturday afternoon, then let her three children look around the place that soon would be their new home. Maybe they would sleep on the floor that night, or get a tent and go camping inside.

And, as she could afford it, Wyrick would purchase new things for the house — things that the May 22 Joplin tornado took.

Just to have a home would be amazing, Wyrick thought.

But what Wyrick didn’t know was that friends — including a special couple from Oklahoma and a group from the Kansas City area that helped raise funds for her after the tornado — would be there to welcome them home.

And instead of the house being empty, it was full of new furniture and decorated walls. Patio furniture out back, even a swing set and sand table. Don’t forget new bikes for the kids.

“It was really a dream,” Wyrick said Saturday night from her new home. “As a single mom, there’s no way I could have given all of this to my children.”

Immediately after the storm, Kansas City photographer Shea Swinford put out a plea to family and friends to help collect donations, clothes and other items for the Wyrick family. The family had moved from Olathe to Joplin in December. While living here, Heather took care of Swinford’s children.

Donations started to pour in. From cash and gift cards to clothes and toys. Residents from Swinford’s Cedar Creek neighborhood in Olathe wanted to help.

“Stuff was dropped by every hour,” said Swinford, who, with another friend, is giving angel wing necklaces donated by Olathe boutique Junque Drawer Studio to those who helped the Wyricks. “Teachers from the elementary school where Heather’s daughter went brought by cash.”

An anonymous donor wanted to give the single mom a car. Wyrick still doesn’t know who gave her family a blue 2008 Honda, complete with car seats and just 30,000 miles on the odometer.

Swinford also heard from a customer of her photography studio, Shea Photography, whose mother wanted to help. Swinford had no idea what that message would mean to Wyrick.

At first, Donna Graves thought she and her husband, Larry, would donate money. Then Larry drove an hour from their Oklahoma home and saw the devastation in Joplin. He wanted to do more.

“I said, ‘I have this email. Maybe we should see about this mom. She needs help,’ ” Donna Graves told him.

After meeting Wyrick for lunch, they clicked. The Graves wanted to know what she needed. What the kids wanted.

Wyrick also had a question for them.

“She said, ‘I’m wondering why you want to help me. Why me, when there’s lots of people worse off than I am?’ ” Donna Graves remembers Wyrick asking. “She was saying, ‘Go help someone else. I’ll be OK.’ ”

But the Graves stayed. They invited the family to their lake home. Got to know the children.

And they started to help Wyrick look for a home, not an easy feat in the Joplin area, where thousands of families are without one.

Ever since the tornado destroyed the home they were renting, the single mom and her children had been staying with relatives. Sleeping together in one bedroom.

After three or four homes fell through, they found the one in Webb City.

The Graves would provide the down payment. And Wyrick would furnish the house little by little. Or so she thought.

Saturday turned into one giant “Christmas in July” for the Wyricks, Swinford said.

“Everywhere we turned, there was another gift for one of the children,” said Swinford.

A few weeks ago, Graves asked Wyrick’s oldest daughter, Emma, 9, what kind of bedroom she wanted someday. The little girl drew her a picture of a room with two pink walls and two purple ones, decorated with butterflies and flowers. Two beds, one for her and the other for her sister, Grace, 5. Emma also drew a lamp with flowers on it.

“I found that exact lamp, I swear,” said Graves.

And she painted the walls just how the little girl wanted.

On Saturday, Emma walked, surprised, into their new bedroom.

“It’s exactly how I pictured it,” she later told her mom.

Swinford came back to Kansas City, happy her friend would spend the night in her new home with her kids. Not in a tent, but in new beds.

And Graves went back to Oklahoma, grateful she and her husband could help a Joplin family that now feels like their own family.

“It makes me probably feel better than it even does her,” Donna Graves said.