Darla Armstrong worked in the Joplin School District for 31 years, both as a teacher and administrator. But all that experience could not prepare her for the events of May 22, 2011.
She was home at the time the EF-5 tornado was expected to hit her neighborhood in the north side of Joplin, but it veered and went straight through the middle of town. Although her home was spared, Armstrong heard that students in the very community she taught had perished from injuries resulting from the tornado that destroyed Joplin High School and more than 7,500 other buildings.
Darla stepped into action amid the total chaos and started volunteering with the Joplin School District. Helping organize logistics at the distribution center set up at the middle school, Armstrong went out to find victims affected by the storm and assess their needs. Eventually, that work led her to begin a new career working with AmeriCorps VISTA and to help the students of Joplin recover.
With 54% of Joplin students affected by the tornado and many living in transitional housing, Darla works feverishly to match the needs of the students and their families with donations available to make life a little bit easier for the victims. To date, Darla Armstrong and her fellow Bright Futures AmeriCorps VISTAs have coordinated and distributed tens of thousands of dollars in donations of supplies, clothing, and other essential for Joplin students.
“The kids are the priority and their families—they don’t have clothes or transportation,” says Armstrong. “Bright Futures picked up the gap between the gap that can’t be met in the middle. So far, I have helped to organize, plan, and attend 9 Sunshine Squads, impacting approximately 550 staff members. "
Since the storm hit, AmeriCorps has had an ongoing presence in Joplin and a long-term commitment to the recovery efforts. In the year since, more than 350 AmeriCorps members from across the nation have served in Joplin. They have removed tons of debris, provided homeowner assistance and casework, operated donation and distribution warehouses, coordinated donations, and managed a large-scale volunteer operation that has coordinated more than 75,000 volunteers to provide more than 520,000 hours of disaster assistance to more than 2,200 Joplin households.
One year after the tornado, more than 25 AmeriCorps members just like Darla are still serving in Joplin, assisting with home building and repair, offering legal services to low-income families, managing volunteers and donations and homeowner requests through the AmeriCorps Recovery Center led by the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team.
Wendy Spencer is the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.