Rebuilding and reliving

The community steps forward with color, parks, commemorations and stories.
The Miracle of the Human Spirit memorial park sits across the street from St. John's Regional Medical Center, which was heavily damaged by the tornado. The tribute engraved in stone commemorates volunteers helping to rebuild Joplin as well as those whose lives were lost in the tornado.

A woman sat in a McDonald's restaurant in Joplin and gaped in awe at those sitting around her. 

They were sharing stories and anecdotes from the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin last spring, one of the worst tornadoes on record for United States history.

Out the door of the McDonald's behind the woman sat St. John's Regional Medical Center, the city's main hospital. Many of the windows were still blown out, debris waving in the wind and chilly fall air rustling through the structure. The city was enveloped in an eerie silence.

These people were merely a few of the more than 50,000 Joplin residents equipped with stories, all unique.

The heart of Cunningham Park

Among some still-damaged houses, broken trees and St. John’s, which is still undergoing repairs, a brand new park and memorial area is bustling with children running around and playing.

A marble display at Cunningham Park, located in the heartland of tornado warpath, capsulated the living arrangements many Joplin residents have come to know. Silverware, knobs and other household items held together in mix-matched form within the marble frame.

For the Joplin residents who stayed, the mission doesn’t end with finding those pieces. It’s now about putting them back together.

Cunningham Park now represents the rebuilding process for people who decided the loss of their houses was not enough to change the Joplin they call home. A marble tribute stands in the middle of the memorial area commemorating the lives lost and the volunteers who helped in the aftermath.

“Over 160 people perished in the storm,” the tribute stated. “What immediately followed in staggering numbers and through personal accounts is the miracle of the human spirit.”

The view above the tablet yielded that same spirit. Approximately 40 red shirts moved around the new park, all in different stages of work. Called "Lowes Heroes," these Lowes employees' mission is to restore the character of Cunningham Park through volunteer work.

“This is our community and we want to help build it,” Lowe’s assistant store manager Pat Watson said. “We all live here and we want to have a big part rebuilding it."

Sunday marked day three of the eight-day project for Lowes, which teamed together eight stores to replicate the park.

After just two days, the site sprouted life within a scene of desolation. To the west, uprooted trees and bare building frames dotted a bleak landscape. The north and east featured damaged homes and piles of their remains. To the south stood the empty St. John’s.

The surroundings didn’t faze the Lowes Heroes, who kept their eyes on restoring a meeting place in the heart of their city.

Worker Brian Arwood paused, taking in the park and how it all came to be. Arwood moved his family of four from Mountain Home, Ark., back to Joplin in July.

“People,” he said was his reason. “The people are family.”

The people and place

Many Joplin and area residents flocked to the new memorial in Cunningham Park this past weekend, reading the tribute to the volunteers and touring some of the damage nearby. For the Stone family, the stories of survival lie with their children.

Patty and Steve Stone, residents of nearby Purcell, were not affected by the tornado and were at home with their 16-year-old son Cody when it hit. But for their daughters Carolyne and Cathy, the damage was a lot closer to home.

Carolyne and her four kids rode out the storm, but their house did not. Cathy, who was six months pregnant at the time and who lived down the street, ran over to her sister’s home to see if her family was alive. After seeing the extent of the damage, Cathy gave up her own home to her sister’s family and moved back in with her parents the next town.

For Joplin residents Robert and Susie Klingsporn, the tornado didn't leave any damage to their house, just their memories. Robert Klingsporn shared his favorite memories of Joplin’s old oak trees and how he used to pick acorns from them with their family’s little ones.

“The oak trees that were taken out here were 120 years old,” he said. “If some day, years from now, there are other oaks over there, and somebody comes through with a grandson and they pick acorns… I could see that happening some day.”

For the Klingsporns, leaving was never an alternative, especially after witnessing the generosity of the community.

"There's people checking on you and they don't even know you,” Susie Klingsporn said. “They don't do that anywhere else I know of, and I've lived all over.”

That community feel is portrayed by the people who have contributed to making Cunningham Park a colorful attraction amid a background of broken trees and desolation.

The signs of hope are in the painted trash cans, cutout hearts and “God Bless” posters propped up in front of temporarily abandoned homes. In other parts of the city, they are painted on store walls, embedded in crosses or left without words in the form of a delicately placed American flag.

The words painted on one of many new Cunningham Park trash cans showcases that much.

“What you spend years creating could be destroyed over night,” it stated. “Create Anyway.”

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