Volunteers work to return photos scattered by tornado

CARTHAGE, Mo. (AP) — Fifteen miles away from Joplin’s ground zero — out of sight of the debris and rubble left behind on May 22 — those impacted by the EF-5 tornado are getting some help.

And they don’t even know it.

At least a couple of days each week, a volunteer crew of 20 women gather at First Baptist Church of Carthage. Upstairs, in an out-of-the-way room kept cool by oscillating floor fans, they bend over tables covered with stacks of photographs: a couple exchanging vows, a child’s first day of school, an ultrasound.

The photographs have been scattered in yards as far as Oak Grove, 218 miles from Joplin, collected by those who found them and taken to Southwest Missouri Bank branches throughout the area. Weekly, a courier picks them up and delivers them to the church.

Last Monday’s intake was 200.

The importance of the photographs is not lost on their temporary caretakers. They wear clear plastic gloves — the kind used by food servers — and are careful to wipe each photo clean, scraping a bit of dried mud with a sharp blade and a steady hand if warranted.

They search the backs for names, dates, any sign of to whom the photo once belonged.

One thing they know for certain: The owner lost not just the photo, but probably a home and possibly a life in the storm.

“There are some here that are ripped, some that are smudged, but I just keep telling myself that if I can get them back to the families — even part of a picture — well, I would want one back if it had been mine, no matter what the condition,” said Brittany Bridges, a Carthage teacher who is overseeing the cleaning and documentation effort. “In some cases that might be all they have left.”

The effort has grown since the storm, beginning as a Facebook project by Amanda Walters (Lost Photos of Joplin) and Abi Almandinger (Joplin’s Found Photos). Visitors to their pages immediately began posting found photos along with a contact name or number; as days passed, connections were made.

The number of found photos grew by the day, and now tops 8,000.

“I knew it could be a lot, but I never imagined it could be this big or involve this many people,” Walters said earlier this week from her home in Pryor, Okla.

The project faced a hiccup, she said, when several thousand were collected from a storage building leveled by the tornado.

“They were not collected properly, left damp in boxes and totes and plastic bags, and we had to stop everything and dry them, or else they’d be lost forever,” Walters said.

Of the 1,000 she posted online, about 200 have been returned.

Almandinger, a Carthage resident, also has had many success stories. The assistance of First Baptist Church became a turning point.

The city of Joplin approved the church as a repository, and 20 of its members — about 15 percent of its congregation — stepped forward to help.

It was a natural connection, said Thad Beeler, church music director who has taken on the role of the photo project director for “as long as it takes.”

“These pictures, they’re a timeline of the human experience, birth through death,” said Beeler, gesturing at a table that included children dressed in Halloween costumes and a man’s and woman’s hands on their wedding certificate. “That’s what brings the church so much into this. We can make a connection with our community during a disaster, and this is really what God has put the church here for.”

Carthage Four State Office Products donated numerous boxes, Office Depot donated boxes and envelopes, and a contact at the Red Cross helped them track down scanners so that the photos can be electronically archived.

“This is a huge responsibility to us and we claim it as such,” Beeler said. “For the folks in the church world, I don’t care what denomination it is, we connect with people because of these type of life experiences.

“We are always there during those times that are the most difficult, the biggest crisis. That’s why we chose to get involved, because we understand that time in people’s lives.”

Church leaders also knew that, if not at first, perhaps later, the volunteers involved with the photo project might be impacted emotionally.

“We’ve warned them of that, that it is easy to get personally attached, and we’re going through a grief counseling training session now with our pastor, John Davidson,” Beeler said.

The church also has plans to offer grief counseling to those with whom they reunite any photos, particularly if the photos are of someone who died in the storm.

“We plan to hand-deliver the photos sealed in an envelope, and those who do it are aware of the potential psychological impact of receiving something like that,” Beeler said.

Donna Turner, a retired Carthage teacher, will be heading up reuniting photos with their owners and is "eager and anxious to get going, although I imagine it will be very emotional."

The entire effort most likely will serve as a model program for other communities nationwide that suffer a natural disaster.

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