Lee Williams 918-638-0700
Mother Rescues Daughters from Fear
Joplin Tornado One Year Anniversary
Sharilyn Garrett and her three daughters were on the road, driving and listening to the horror on Joplin radio. Were they next? Was the tornado headed for them? Would they be killed or homeless? Seven year old Danielle may have been the most frightened, and her eleven year old sister, Madeline, had a hard time evaluating the risk. “I was nerve wracked, shock and disbelief and nervous that it would come and it would spread.”
Sharilyn tried to find the words to comfort her daughters, ages seven, eleven and fifteen, “I just told the girls that now is a time to pray, and that if people needed to go to be with God, then that was the way it was meant to be.”
At seven, Danielle had few skills to cope. “I thought it was going to hit us during the night. During the tornado, I just prayed to God, and I just asked for positive energy from God. After I prayed to God, I saw in my mind that it (the tornado) should stop soon, and I was happy.”
But the relief was short lived. At the homes of friends and relatives, it was 24/7 death and destruction on television. Eleven year old Madeline recognized the wreckage and rubble, “You were watching these things and you could basically say, hey, I sat in that very same seat (of a destroyed restaurant), or I drove on the very same road.”
There were stories of babies buried, a twelve-year-old boy swept from a bathtub, and an eighteen year old senior sucked through the sunroof of his SUV while returning from his high school graduation. A Weather Channel meteorologist had been chasing the tornado and arrived minutes after two hundred mile per hour winds had wiped out entire neighborhoods around St. John hospital. Meteorologist Mike Bettes witnessed the wounded and the dead in the streets, and he wept live on camera—and in dozens of replays. Seven-thousand homes and apartment units were blown away and one hundred, sixty-one lives taken.
“I could have taken the girls to a psychiatrist, but then I said we had to do something and I began looking for a place to volunteer,” Sharilyn decided.
Danielle remembers, “I was real scared and my mom said, ‘We have to do something’. I was so happy. I always wanted to volunteer.”
Through a church contact, Sharilyn and her girls ended up at a feeding tent outside the temporary St. John Hospital. Calling the facility a “temporary hospital” makes it sound much more like a building than it was. The temporary hospital was an inflatable shelter that looked like giant igloos connected by tunnels puffed up with air, literally a blow-up hospital where entrance flaps had to be shut quickly so air wouldn’t escape.
Emily Hymer is the secretary at the Carl’s Junction School. She had the bright idea to ask the school’s food services director for a big donation. Since the meat and perishables would have been thrown out at the end of the school year, it was easy to give. Emily’s father, Cliff Wirzberg, became the griller-in-chief, and Emily organized a group that included her parents, children and friends. At first they distributed food from the trunk of Emily’s car, but soon took over a tent that had been started by a group from Harrisonville, Missouri. Emily said the volunteers and donations came pouring in, “It blossomed and got bigger from there. Now the doctors and nurses are giving us donations. It’s pretty amazing.”
It is what Sharilyn and her girls had hoped for, a place where they could help instead of hurt. The burgers and hot dogs slid off two home grills as fast as eleven year old Madeline and new friends could wrap them. Fifteen year old Victoria mostly served drinks, “It made me feel good, like I was actually doing something to help people because people needed it, and no one else was there to do what we were doing.”
Family therapist Catherine McCall explains, “What’s going to help the children is having their parents involved with them in coping with what’s going on and also having their parents and them contribute to the people who have been hurt, help them. It gives them a sense of mastery and a sense of connection. And particularly something like a tornado, which affects the whole community, part of the healing factor and the rebuilding are the connections that you make with other people. You know, that there is a solidarity between them.”
Feeding tents like this sprang up all over Joplin. It seemed like there was a feeding tent every ten blocks. Across town at another feeding station, volunteers from Woodmen of the World were serving eight hundred grilled to perfection pork chop sandwiches a day. Insurance rep and Baptist minister, Hylton Lawrence, said they planned to leave sooner, but couldn’t because the people in the lower middle class neighborhood kept coming.
Outside the inflatable hospital, the clientele was different. Some were storm victims, but most were doctors, nurses, television reporters, field producers, photographers and satellite truck operators, plus police, EMS, and volunteers and workers from across the nation and some foreign countries, all with something in common. They had no place nearby to eat. Every business in the area had been destroyed, damaged or had no water or electricity, McDonalds, sandwich shops, moms and pops, cafeterias, medical buildings and quickie marts all blown out of business.
Sharilyn reflected, “I believe that it gave them (her daughters) a positive feeling about helping others. We really talked strongly and tried to show Christ, so I believe that they could feel a positive presence while we were there and could feel the same positive presence after we were leaving, that they knew it was the right thing.”
Danielle engaged, “As soon as we started helping, then I knew that it was going to be OK and God was going to be with us even during the night.”
Eleven year old Madeline thrust her arm into the air in a spontaneous moment of thankfulness. “I was praising God for keeping the volunteers and the doctors and nurses alive, so they can help the people who were most affected by the tornado. People had hope to rebuild their lives. They saw that people cared and realized what they were going through.”
Seven-year-old Danielle kept busy handing out the twenty dozen cookies they had baked, “I thought positive energy and being with them and seeing the damage. I felt great because I knew that we were helping, and we were sharing positive energy. You know the kind that God sends down to us.”
Family therapist McCall concludes, “I continue to feel that the child was able to feel joy because she was guided into a situation where rather than being powerless and scared, she could do something active and within her control. She had a sense of self-efficacy rather than powerlessness and fear.”
Sharilyn’s girls found refuge at the little feeding tent, in the service of others, even though the disaster on every side of the tent stretched to the horizon. They arrived the Sunday morning after the tornado, and worked through the afternoon and then all night sleeping in tents, and again the next day. Sharilyn says her children never complained. “As far as saying they were tired or showing any signs of being tired, they really they did not. They were so focused on their new friends that they were making, and Danielle was really talking to people about why the cookies were so special.”
Danielle struck the most angelic smile. “I told them that the cookies had looooooove in them. They reacted that those were the best cookies that they ever tasted! ”
In that moment, Danielle represented the more than forty thousand volunteers who had come to this city of only fifty thousand. In her joy, time stood still. The devastation receded and hope gained the upper hand. And, yes, Danielle, those were the best cookies I ever tasted.
One Year Later
Sharilyn and her girls have returned to the disaster zone three times in recent months to make donations, twice dropping off cookies at St. John’s temporary hospital and once with a Girl Scout troop donating canned food when the Extreme Makeover Home Edition TV show was in town.
“They’re not having nightmares, but they’re having moments of sadness remembering their friends.” That’s especially true for now twelve year old Madeline. One of her friends and her friend’s sister were both killed in their apartment while their mother was waitressing at a local restaurant.
Sharilyn is working two jobs to make ends meet, and they are very active in a new church home. Helping others, “Really empowered the girls. It’s given them a new outlook on life.”
Danielle is happy and still prays every night for the people of Joplin. Sharilyn says last night Danielle prayed, “Please put a hedge of protection around them from now on, God.”
Lee Williams, M.A., covered the Joplin tornado for twelve days as a field producer for ABC News and The Weather Channel. Mr. Williams is an assistant professor of communications at Rogers State University in Claremore, Oklahoma, and spent thirty years in news as a reporter, producer and manager.
Catherine McCall, M.S., L.M.F.T. practices in Marietta, GA. Author of the memoir, When the Piano Stops, and the UK bestseller, Never Tell, she is a contributing writer for Psychology Today.
© Copyright 2012