Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lessons from Joplin

One year ago, I was preparing everything to head to Joplin. While I thought I was preparing well, nothing could really prepare a person for the devastation, the heartbreak, the resiliency and the outpouring of support following the tornado.

When I returned, I wrote the following post on a work blog:

Joplin Tornado

The sign outside the Joplin Humane Society
It’s taken me a little while to sit and write this as I needed to get some rest and wanted to think about the experience before putting it on paper. I spent eight days (the Tuesday after the tornado through the following Tuesday night) working in Joplin at the temporary emergency shelter run by the ASPCA with help from HSUS and AHA.

The week was exhausting---physically, mentally and emotionally, but also exhilarating and meaningful. Most days, I worked with a group of amazing volunteers doing the intakes and RTO’s (return to owners). There were lots of tears from people who had lost everything and found their animals to people who had lost everything and hadn’t found their animals to people who lost everything and had to bring their animals in to the shelter for boarding. There were also the tears from volunteers while working with all of the above people. 
Two of the warehouses used for shelter. The third one (for cats) was just past these two.
During the eight days, we took in over 800 animals (dogs, cats, chickens, birds, snakes, ferrets, turtles) and over 200 animals were claimed by their human companions. Hundreds (if not thousands) of volunteers from all over the country spent time helping these animals. Many of these volunteers were driving over an hour each way to stay at a motel or were sleeping on cots at the Joplin Humane Society. These volunteers were happy to work long hours in hot and humid conditions to make sure the animals were shown the love they deserve.

Everyone who volunteered has an animal (or animals) they can tell you about; ones who touched their heart and soul. For me, he was a little dog who came in during the middle of the night. I won’t get in to the whole story here, but needless to say, he caused me a severe lack of sleep (due to getting up multiple times throughout the night), but in hindsight, the only thing I would have done differently is spend more time with him during that night.

One of the shelters...this one is for stray dogs.
We all worked long, hard days while we were volunteering, but no one seemed to think twice about doing it. The weather never really wanted to cooperate--cold and rainy one day followed by hot and humid the next. There were hiccups along the way and things that probably could have run a bit more smoothly, but this was a disaster situation and things had to come together as quickly as possible. Many of the staff from the ASPCA came in from other disasters, the tornadoes down South and the floods in the boot heel of Missouri. I met tons of amazing people (I consider many of them close friends) and helped take care of people’s cherished animal companions, for some, this companion is all they have left. I laughed and cried and worked my butt off, but I have an experience I will not soon forget. 
The intake area of the shelter.
A woman I worked with in the shelter, who has responded to many disasters and who has become a dear friend said it best: "I walk away in awe of the strength of the people of Joplin, the size of their hearts and their love for their animals. An amazing community. We are always touched by the animals, but to be brought to tears over and over again by the people of Joplin was a powerful lesson in humanity." 
A map of the actual area struck by the tornado.

This post captures some feelings I had when I came back, but doesn't really scratch the surface when it comes to the impact this event had on all of us. The outpouring of support from around the world was awe-inspiring. I volunteered with people from across the nation and I guarantee, each and every one of us has a memory from our time in Joplin that constantly pops in our head. We worked long, hard hours, but everywhere we looked reminded us of why we were doing what we did.

It's hard to believe it has only been a year since this tragedy. When I returned to Kansas City after my eight days, I was emotionally exhausted and drained. It took me a couple of weeks to return to my normal self, but I don't think I ever returned to being the person I was before I left. This experience changed me and continues to remind me of the importance in each and every day. We are still going to have our ups and downs and we are still going to laugh and cry, but, for many of us who were there, we remember to hug our loved ones a little more and try to not let the little things get us down.

If I could only take away one thing from this experience, it's remembering how precious life is and how quickly it can change. None of us know how we are going to react in such devastating circumstances, but if we can live our life with passion and vigor, we can take anything that happens. We never know what is going to happen and I, for one, don't want to leave any cards facedown on the table when the game is over. 

I was only there for eight days and I didn't have to go through what the people of Joplin did. I only came down to help out with what I could and never imagined how much the people and animals of Joplin would touch my heart. I think about them all the time and know, after meeting so many residents, that Joplin is stronger after what happened. There is still a huge scar across the city, but it is healing and the people I met will never let this scar take away their spirit. 

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