Joplin volunteers lend an ear to tornado victims

JOPLIN (AP) — While thousands of volunteers have wielded hammers and heavy equipment to help Joplin physically recover from last year’s tornado, another corps has quietly worked to assist residents struggling with the disaster’s emotional toll.

Easily recognized by their distinctive, bright-blue shirts, dozens of members of the Healing Joplin program have fanned out to provide emotional first aid. As of last week, the trained listeners had spoken with more than 28,000 people, some in repeat visits, since a month after the May 2011 tornado that destroyed thousands of buildings and left 161 people dead, The Joplin Globe reported.

“I was at Taco Bell on Range Line, and a guy came up to me and said, ‘I need to talk to you,’” said Tom Tiegreen, a retiree who became involved through his church. “I was wearing the shirt, and he knew what it represented.”

Healing Joplin operates through Freeman Health System’s Ozark Center and has been funded with a $3.8 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Missouri Department of Mental Health. The funding expires at the end of June, but organizers have applied for additional aid that would keep the program operating until September.

Deborah Fitzgerald, the program’s director, described the workers as “trained listeners” who can also connect people with needed community resources. The volunteers — men and women ages 20 to 68 — have knocked on thousands of doors and visited homeless shelters, aid distribution points, nursing homes, day care centers, businesses, service agencies and first responders. They have done crisis debriefing for agencies, hospitals, schools, churches and the Joplin Housing Authority.

One of their tools is a worksheet that helps break down the emotions that accompany overwhelming loss into step-by-step actions.

“We also helped normalize emotions, to help them see that they were having normal responses, and sometimes you can just see them breathe a sigh of relief. It’s like, ‘I’m not the only one who’s feeling this way,’” said Teri Nunnally, a Healing Joplin crisis worker who signed up after surviving the tornado while on duty at St. John’s Regional Medical Center.

Andrea Holseth has seen how the volunteers can help expose and ease post-disaster anxiety. Her family survived the tornado in their bathroom, and emerged to find their house, their car, the homes of their grandparents and Joplin High School in ruins.

Her 16-year-old son, Gavin Williamson, coped well until he saw the school and its baseball field, Holseth said.

“It was heartbreaking,” Holseth said. “He lost everything he knew.”

As he started his sophomore year last fall, his mother said, Gavin’s grades began to slip and he became loud and angry, refusing to discuss the tornado.

In October, two women in bright blue shirts came to the family’s rental house.

“I knew it was Healing Joplin,” Holseth said. “I shoved him out the door to talk with them and said, ‘I’ll be in here. You go talk.’”

In the nonthreatening atmosphere of the front porch, Gavin opened up to volunteers Stephanie Jordon and Tracy Eck. They made repeat visits and now are considered family friends.

“When you’re working through your own emotions, you don’t know how to fix someone else’s emotions,” Holseth said. “You have an entire family you have to be strong for.”

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