Joplin, Mo., Students Return to School Three Months After Deadly Tornado

School doors open in Joplin, Mo., three months after deadly tornado.

August 17, 2011, 8:34 AM

Aug. 17, 2011 -- For a town desperately seeking a return to some sense of normalcy, the ringing of school bells is more welcome than even the high-tech gifts being handed to many of Joplin's students on their first day back in school.

"You can judge a community by the way it takes care of its kids," said C.J. Huff, a Joplin schools superintendent. "We take care of our kids. Every student in ninth- through 12th-grade will have a computer on their first day."

Huff is somewhat of a hero in this Missouri town, which is still coping from the aftermath of one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S history. The twister obliterated a third of the community and killed 160 people in a matter of minutes.

Two days after the May storm, he promised that school would be back in session Aug. 17 as originally scheduled, despite the destruction or damage to the main high school and nine other schools.

"Did you think this would be possible three months ago," ABC News' David Muir asked? "Yes," Huff said emphatically.

In one former school-turned-makeshift warehouse, you find a clue as to how this community, where many thriving neighborhoods are now literally clean slates with mere concrete foundations splattered across the landscape, was able to bounce back. Inside one room there are gifts both large and small, such as shoes, shirts and cards that have encouraging messages to hope. One card reads, "For a special boy, I made this outfit for you. I hope you enjoy it. I'm praying for you, love Carol in Texas."

The laptops, which were donated by a generous gift from the United Arab Emirates, will greet each high school student when they return to their school, which was once a department store in a local mall.

'Smiling Faces' Return to Joplin Schools

The school system has been able to match donors with every student. Even teachers have been adopted. The teaching tools that built up during the years and were simply thrown to the wind have been replaced by generosity from all corners.

"I'm sure the first week of school will be filled with lots of hugs," said Laila Zaidi, a 10th-grader who has lived in a Red Cross shelter, bounced around in two homes with her family and coped with the deaths of those she knew like so many others in Joplin. "Everyone is still healing. But I'm sure it will all be OK."

In Kelsey Norman Elementary, the halls were filled with smiling faces as its young greeted fellow classmates and teachers for the first time since their last school year was cut abruptly short.

"It's nice to see everyone walking through the halls smiling," said Natalie Gonzalez, standing next to Augie Ward, her 9-year-old son, who was hit with flying debris as he cowered with his mother in their bathroom during the storm but survived because he was wearing a bike helmet. "He hasn't seen his best friend all summer. It's needed."

As Augie goes through a book bag filled with donated notebooks, markers and crayons, as well as a paper bag stuffed with the things he had to abandon last school year, his mom, who is still recovering from a broken vertebrae, reflects on their new life as one of Joplin's displaced.

"It's just scars now," she said. "It's nice to see the school open. Everything seems normal again, a little bit. We might not live in this neighborhood right now but at least we can come back and be a part of it."

Amid Devastation, Town Expresses Gratitude

Like so many displaced by the storm, this family has had to leave Joplin because of a lack of homes. But the school system, which lost seven students and one staff member, is encouraging all of its own both near and far to return in an effort to get its students back on track.

There are many hurdles left for Joplin's students and staff, such as the bigger issues including trauma, to the smaller but not mundane like how to do a tornado drill.

But for a community that lost so much in minutes, the overwhelming message to the outside world is one of gratitude to those across the country and around the world who helped them achieve the seemingly unbelievable task of starting school on time.

"What goes around comes around," special education teacher Carla Sheets said. "Someday, if it's somebody else's turn, we will be there for them. That's what we believe here in Joplin."

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