FBLA students' Joplin experience rooted in stories

May 10, 2012

More than anything, it was the stories.

Upon returning from a trip to Joplin to plant trees for residents whose property was damaged in last year’s tornado, Smith-Cotton FBLA student Tyler Kilby said he was moved by how “giving them something so little touched them.”

Kilby, a junior, and other FBLA officers said residents’ tales of the devastation and recovery, and their gratitude, are what will stick with them after they spent May 5 participating in the Rooting for Joplin community service project.

Smith-Cotton chapter advisors Amanda Mills and Katie Ellis took 16 students to Joplin; in all, chapters from across Missouri sent more than 900 volunteers who helped plan 1,200 trees. Mills said there were plans early on to plant about 12,000 trees — as many as were lost in the tornado — but many residents are not in the rebuilding mode yet. So in addition to planting trees, FBLA and PBL members gave $5,000 to the Joplin school district for landscaping costs at the new high school.

About $26,000 was raised for the project statewide, with $7,000 coming from the S-C chapter, thanks to members’ fundraising efforts and an anonymous benefactor who matched the students’ $3,500 total. The Smith-Cotton group was recognized at the event’s opening ceremony, which junior Alyssa Weikal said “made our school look really good.”

The S-C chapter planted 36 trees under the guidance of foresters from the Missouri Department of Conservation. As they worked, residents told them stories about the day the tornado struck and their attempts to recover from the damage. One woman told Mills she was scammed out of $10,000 by a construction company just after the tornado; Mills said the woman was in tears, thankful that the students were there to give her something.

Mills said others shared stories of theft; another homeowner told her that despite assurances from Rooting for Joplin organizers, she wasn’t certain the offer of up to three free trees was legitimate until the students showed up in her yard.

Kinsey Mahalovich, a junior and the chapter’s new president, said the most rewarding part of the trip was “knowing you were part of something that helped people.” Fellow junior Jenna Blaylock said, “To see the look on their faces when we were done, I was overwhelmed.”

Mills said the whole trip went off without a hitch.

“For a project that big, we pulled it off with minimal problems,” she said.

The students said their fundraising efforts to get to Joplin were more arduous than digging the holes and planting the trees. Mahalovich said the journey served as a valuable bonding experience for the incoming chapter officers, but Mills believes they got even more out of the trip.

“There is not a student who wasn’t affected by a story from a resident,” she said.