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From small, bright spots to big ones: Americorps St. Louis still at work in Joplin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2011 - Just after the deadly tornado that struck Joplin last May, Quinn Gardner and other volunteers from Americorps St. Louis arrived in town.

Nearly seven months later, they're still there.

"Thanksgiving was the first and only day that we were not open and operational," says Gardner, field and operations coordinator with the emergency response team.

Gardner, who is based in St. Louis, says a team from St. Louis is in Joplin and she makes it down every other week or so.

In the time since she arrived, the knocked-down city has slowly been cleaned up, some rebuilding has taken place, families have been reunited and some people have gotten to go home.

"There's a ton of different groups working together through the long-term recovery committee to get people home," Gardner says.

About 25 full structures that need to be demolished are still standing, she says, and about 250 partial ones, too. The city's goal is to have that completed by the end of January.

Then, the main focus will be rebuilding.

It's been a tough year for volunteers across the state, with multiple tornados and flooding. Gardner's team went to Joplin just after working to clean up from the Good Friday tornado that hit St. Louis.

"The Good Friday tornado was the worst we've ever seen," she says, "and then we went to Joplin."

But there's a strong relationship there, Gardner says, with state and FEMA partnerships and many volunteer organizations.

The St. Louis chapter of the Red Cross is no longer in Joplin, according to Peggy Barnhart, regional communications director. At the time the tornado struck, the local chapter had 207 people still dealing with the St. Louis tornado and flooding in the region, but they sent eight mental health and health professionals to Joplin and raised $1.956 million from the St. Louis chapter alone.

Likewise, the Humane Society of Missouri, which rescued hundreds of animals from the debris and assisted with a temporary shelter, isn't operational there anymore either, according to vice president of communications Jeane Jae.

In both cases, the local organizations have taken over.

Service International, a Chesterfield-based service organization, had their last day of work in Joplin on June 25, according to their website, and reports more than 2,000 volunteers from multiple states pitched in.

Gardner says everyone in Joplin knows the winter is going to be hard physically and the holidays will be so emotionally, too. But the organizations there plan on taking the winter to put together a system for rebuilding Joplin.

Then, with the first sign of spring, she says, it will begin.

"They're not small victories," Gardner says, "they're really huge victories now."

Kristen Hare

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