Sept. 16, 2011
By Todd D. Burlage
Sarah Smith never paid much attention to Joplin as she drove by the Missouri city countless times along Interstate 44, making her way back and forth to Notre Dame, to and from her parents' home in Grove, Ok.
Grove is situated only about 40 miles southwest of Joplin, so Smith, a 2008 Notre Dame graduate, was familiar with Joplin, but the nearby city never held any special place in her heart, until now, that is.
Joplin made worldwide news on May 22 when a category EF5 tornado ripped through this quiet city of about 175,000. The devastating twister killed at least 159 people - the seventh deadliest tornado in U.S. history - and left behind almost $3 billion in damage.
"When people talk about a war zone, that's exactly what it looked like," Smith says, who was about to form a bond with the Joplin community she'll never forget. "The path of the destruction was very obvious because the ground looked like a bomb just went off."
Smith, a former standout softball player at Notre Dame, now serves as the student welfare and development coordinator in the Athletics Department. Her responsibilities include organizing community service initiatives for the Irish student-athletes, but none of those endeavors ever hit as close to home as the Joplin disaster.
With donation boxes placed in the locker rooms of all the university sports teams, Notre Dame had already started an aid drive to help the victims of the Tuscaloosa, Ala., tornados. One twister there killed more than 60 people about three weeks before the tornado hit in Joplin.
Smith had a trip to Grove planned to visit her family a couple of weeks after the Joplin tornado struck, so she decided to load up her pickup truck with some of those boxes of clothes, shoes, and food and drop them off personally in Joplin on her way home. "As much as I could stuff in the truck," she says. And the rest was shipped to Tuscaloosa.
"Coming off the highway at Joplin, you could clearly see the path that the tornado took," Smith says. "There's a hill before you exit and you could just see the start of the devastation with the splintered trees and the homes that were destroyed. The destruction was unbelievable."
But Smith said even more remarkable than the wreckage was the spirit of the Joplin community. A deeply religious area tucked away in the heart of the Bible Belt, churches seemingly sprout up on every street corner. Smith arrived unannounced and stopped at the first one she saw to unload her supplies. She was met with an overwhelming gratitude that changed Smith's outlook on her career, and the human spirit.
"This was so different from what I usually do," Smith says. "These people had nothing. Seeing these people that had nothing and being able to provide something and just to see them so grateful, it's hard to explain how it made me feel."
Smith's Notre Dame affiliation became a sidebar to her charitable mission. One man showed his leprechaun tattoo on his shoulder, others wanted to know all about the university, and of course, Irish football talk ruled the day.
"That's how big the Notre Dame community is," Smith says. "Even though that guy with the leprechaun didn't go to Notre Dame, he is a huge fan and he was so excited and so glad to meet somebody that actually went there. They were all just so grateful."
Smith and Notre Dame's relief drive was just one piece to a support effort that is starting to define Joplin more than the tornado itself. Smith said tents and aid stations were set up at nearly every church and parking lot throughout the city, offering clothes, water, food and even shelter to those in need, all without asking for anything in return.
"People were out helping everyone else so that was really cool to see the community come together and provide a safe zone or place where people could come and get clothes or food. And everything was free. I thought that was really neat. They were clearly taking care of their community."
The initiative created from the generosity of the Notre Dame community and the willingness of one community member to get her hands dirty and get involved is what makes this story special to all of us, and Joplin special to Sarah Smith.
"Now I understand firsthand helping someone and what it means, and feeling that emotional connection with them," she says. "That touched me for sure because it is close to home, but now I feel more so than ever that I want to help when stuff like this happens because I know we make a difference and it means a lot to those in need."