While most Western Michigan University students were home with their families celebrating the holidays, playing in the snow and sipping on hot chocolate, 14 other students traveled to Joplin, Miss. to dedicate the gift of service.
Joplin made headline news in 2011 after a mega tornado leveled the town, killing dozens and leaving hundreds homeless. The Joplin tornado was measured as an EF-5 tornado that had an estimated diameter of one mile with wind speeds over 200 miles per hour. The tornado slammed into the town destroying everything in its path. As of April 2012, over 130,000 volunteers provided 810,476.5 man hours rebuilding the shattered city, according to the Joplin Tornado Anniversary website.
“I didn’t know anybody that was going,” said Steven Roessel, a junior at WMU majoring in physical education. “It was a lot different. We split up in two different vans and started driving down there. I think that this was the first stage that we all started to become good friends.”
“It was my second time going to Joplin,” said Melodie Louden, a junior who served as the site leader of the trip. “It was cool to see that there were projects that I had helped complete last time I went.”
As the site leader for the group, Louden said that the trip was a little crazy at times, but she was honored to represent AWE and found the position and trip really rewarding.
Students stayed a week in Joplin working on various projects around the town. Two years after the tornado hit the town, the residents and surrounding area still haven’t completely recovered.
“I think that we did things that were quite different,” said Andrew Hazelton, a graduate student at WMU working in higher student education affairs. “We picked up a lot of debris and helped put in insulation and worked alongside contractors that were working on their own dime and getting paid very little. Being able to see community come together was very cool.”
Students laughed as they reflected on their trip, remembering two days where they simply pulled nails out of boards. They said although the task may not seem very beneficial or helpful, they were told it was necessary.
“It was something that you don’t expect to do down there,” said Hazelton. “At first you don’t think of how much of a difference you are going to make doing it. But putting it in number terms, our two days of work saved [contractors] a couple thousand dollars building the site. No matter how small the work you’re doing, you are making a big impact.”
Because of the many damaged buildings in the area, there were few areas to find lodging around Joplin. Rather than finding costly hotels, the Alternative Winter Experience crew stayed the basement of a church. The students paid for their stay with donations and labor that would help beautify the church by tiling floors, steam cleaning carpets and painting the building in exchange for lodging for the week.
“I feel that going to Joplin was great experience,” said Louden, the team leader. “That was my main goal as a site leader – to make sure that they were going to do something that was rewarding and meet people outside their friend groups. As a site leader, this was very important to me.”
“It was an eye opening experience,” said Roessel. “I am definitely a changed person because of the trip.”