UMSL volunteers in Joplin, Mo.

UMSL students and faculty have volunteered in Joplin, Mo., after much of the city was leveled by a tornado last month. University volunteers include (from left) Philip Boyd, Meghin Foster, Diane Saleska, Maggie Lynch, Jennifer Novak and Joel McCann.

A tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., on May 22. It took the lives of 153 people, and miles of homes and businesses were leveled. For more than three weeks, volunteers have come to the city to help it recover. Students and faculty from the University of Missouri–St. Louis are among those who’ve lent a hand.

Diane Saleska, associate teaching professor of nursing, took five nursing students to Joplin May 31 through June 2. They cleaned up debris and worked at a food pantry.

“I’m passionate about getting students on the ground,” said Saleska, who volunteered after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. “I think it’s important for students to understand the depth of human suffering that happens after a disaster.”

Nursing student Joel McCann described the scene in Joplin as piles of wood and rubble.

“It was hard to even distinguish between what was once a home or a business ­– everything just blended together into one enormous heap of scrap metal and wood,” McCann said.

Jennifer Novak, a senior nursing student, said she felt helpless during Katrina and after the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, so she jumped at Saleska’s e-mail asking students if they wanted to work in Joplin.

“Watching the coverage on TV and seeing pictures on the Internet do no justice to the devastation I saw,” Novak said. “When we got out at our first assignment for cleanup duty, I jumped off the truck and just stood in total shock. I remember just walking in circles for the first 10 minutes thinking that people’s lives have been destroyed and scattered miles upon miles in the blink of an eye.”

Novak and McCann said they were happy with their decisions to volunteer.

“Each volunteer component serves an integral part of the bigger plan,” McCann said. “The presence of each and every volunteer reinforces the hope that this community already has. Rebuilding Joplin won’t be an easy task. And it certainly won’t happen quickly, but it will be done.”

Novak added, “(Volunteering) really put my life into perspective. There are so many things that we take for granted every day, and this trip helped me realize that, in one second, everything can change. I was honored to be able to actually talk to some of the people and hear their stories of what happened and how the tornado affected their lives. Some people couldn’t talk and just wanted a hug. I felt blessed to be able to give it.”

Alan Heisel, chair of the Department of Communication, also headed to Joplin to help. He and a friend spent a day separating debris into piles.

“It was a 14-hour day, but you can’t really complain,” Heisel said. “We get to leave – the people who live there have no place to go.”

He said he hopes more people will take a day, a weekend or a week to volunteer there.

“They really need all the help they can get,” he said.

UMSL is supportive of volunteerism and recently held its inaugural Employee Volunteer Program Fair. The program allows full-time staff members to take up to eight hours of paid time off per calendar year to volunteer for qualifying organizations in the St. Louis area.

Although the Office of Volunteer Services at UMSL is not currently coordinating any efforts to Joplin, the office is referring potential volunteers to the United Way website, which lists volunteer opportunities.

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Kylie Shafferkoetter

Kylie Shafferkoetter