Despite challenges, Joplin's graduating class moves forward

JOPLIN, Mo. - For Joplin's Class of 2012, this graduation will be more than just memories of classroom antics and sports rivalries. The graduating seniors have dealt with total devastation. Many of them lost their homes. Some of them lost family members. And some of them lost friends.

Senior Danielle Campbell is one of those students. She was home the day of the storm. She was doing math homework, her sister nearby, and her mom was cooking in the kitchen.

Danielle had seen reports on TV about a storm coming through, but thought it was just a routine rain and wind. She saw people talking on Facebook about a tornado hitting. She didn't believe them. Then, the wind picked up. She described what so many who've experienced a tornado describe. A train sound.

Fast-thinking, Danielle told her sister to get in the closet. There was no time to get to the basement.

She yelled at her mom. Her mom scooped up the family dog and ran. All of them, lunging into a closet. The door shut, and the winds hit.

Danielle says she prayed, if anyone would be "taken", let it be her. Her sister was too young. And her sister needed her mom. Let it be her.

It was not her time to go. Nor was it her mom's or her sister's.

The house was gone. Crumbled and strewn all around. Somebody helped clear debris, untrapping the young family from their closet.

That was then. This week, Danielle will graduate.

"It's been...emotional," she said, wiping tears from her eyes as she thought about the last year.

"But I've learned materials things don't matter. It's about the people you have around you," she added, a little more gusto in her voice.

The high school was destroyed May 22, when one of the strongest tornadoes in recorded history tore through the town. One-third of the town was destroyed, including schools. Ten of the 20 school buildings were destroyed or suffered damage.

School administrators were first worried about people. Was everybody OK? Who needed help? What next?

The assistant superintendent of schools, Dr. Angie Besendorfer, said the "people" part of the aftermath took almost three days. Not that there wasn't still personal stuff to deal with, but work needed to be done finding these kids a place to go to school.

The story of the high school is a unique one.

In the wake of the storm, many destroyed businesses were looking for new locations to lease or buy. The large commercial real estate space was suddenly prime property.

Dr. Besendorfer was tasked with finding a new place for high school. Nothing in town was big enough for all four grade levels (freshman thru senior), so they looked at splitting up the space.

Within two weeks of beginning her search, so less than three weeks from the devastating day the tornado hit, Besendorf had secured the old Shopko location behind the mall. She knew the architects would have their hands full, but she believed in their vision.

Besendorfer had to get permission from the mall stores. The building would need interior walls, but the walls couldn't go all the way to the ceiling because of fire code, among other reasons.

The space was transformed, and students started school the next year in their "new," temporary school. No gym, but a room full of workout equipment. No field for sports just outside the building, instead a parking lot with a view of the Macy's entrance to the mall.

There are no lockers in the temporary school because there are no textbooks. Books were another casualty of the storm.
Thanks to a $1 million dollar grant provided by the United Arab Emirates, the school has laptops for every single student. The laptops are their textbooks.

Support came in from all over the world.

The student council was determined to still have students feel like they were a high school with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. The student council president, Julie Lewis, said they went about their council duties with that focus in mind.

They needed to feel as normal as possible, even though 30 percent of their town had been shredded by wind.

Lewis said, for her, the most memorable event of her senior year was prom. Knowing what they'd been through, and then support flowing in to make their prom more special than the night might even have been without a tornado.

A groundbreaking for the new high school will happen Tuesday at 3:30 p.m.

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