Catholics and parishes throughout the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph have organized relief efforts for the victims of the May 22 tornado in Joplin. This is the story of one of them, Kathy Wittman of Holy Spirit Parish in Lee’s Summit.
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JOPLIN — The Rev. Mike Kersey knows it because he can feel it in his soul. The people of Joplin are not alone.
“It feels incredible,” said the pastor of operations of Forest Park Baptist Church, that has become a tornado relief center, just six blocks north of the edge of devastation.
“The prayers, the flood of compassion, it’s overwhelming,” Rev. Kersey said. “I have been in contact with a church in Maryland. I have a group coming in from Tennessee. I have heard from churches in Kansas City, Lenexa and Lee’s Summit. People are calling, asking us what we need, praying for us. Sure, you feel it.”
One of the people who came was Kathy Wittman, from Holy Spirit Parish in Lee’s Summit.
On May 25, the third day after a monster tornado leveled about a third of the southwestern Missouri city of 50,000 people, Wittman led a caravan of three vehicles and a cargo trailer crammed full of the stuff that rescue workers said they needed — cleaning supplies, toothpaste, bath soap, laundry detergent, diapers, baby formula and even work gloves.
She had to do it. It was the way she was raised. In Joplin, Missouri.
“God called us to serve. That’s what we’re supposed to do, and this is my hometown,” Wittman said as she barreled down U.S. 71 in the navy blue Dodge Caravan that she and her husband Bruce have named “Blue Boy.”
“My Dad and Mom went to Mexico 13 years in a row. They would take a North American Van Lines truck, load it up and take it to people in the south part of Mexico,” she said. “That was just the nature of how I was raised.”
Wittman said she spent most of the day after the tornado hit tracking down the 11 members of her extended family that live in Joplin, in particular, Aunt Virginia and Uncle Raymond Bassett, who are both in their 80s.
“I have an uncle that lives in (nearby) Jasper. I was able to talk to him once he got into Joplin but Aunt Virginia and Uncle Raymond don’t have a cell phone,” she said.
“I was nervous and couldn’t get my mind wrapped around anything until I found my family,” Wittman said.
“Once I did that, then I said, ‘OK, what’s the next step? Help them,’” she said.
She made a series of phone calls and was directed to Lucille Gilbert at Forest Park Baptist Church, at Fourth Street and Range Line Road. Wittman knew exactly where that was.
“She told me what was needed and where to get it to,” Wittman said.
Then she called Tom O’Donnell and Joy Northington, of Holy Spirit’s Knights of Columbus council and auxiliary.
“They donated more than $800 on the spot,” Wittman said.
She then spread the word and donations began rolling into the parish. Lee’s Summit firefighters donated bandages and other first aid supplies. People came in with blankets, towels, and non-perishable food.
She headed to Sam’s Club with the money donations, cleaning shelves of diapers and baby formula.
In less than a day, she had enough for all three vans, plus the trailer loaded with 105 32-bottle cases of water.
Wittman turned her business, Classic Catering of Missouri, over to her employees.
“I have got the best staff,” she said. “I can give them the credit cards, the keys, and not worry for a second. How great is that?”
She has vowed to return to Joplin every day, more than once a day if she can, whenever she raises enough supplies to take. But this was her first trip home.
One van was driven by parishioner Jesse Northington, Joy’s wife, with husband Bruce riding shotgun. The other was driven by Bruce Kusgen and his wife, Jenny, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“That’s the real beauty of this,” said Wittman, a Catholic convert who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition.
“You’ve got Mormons, Baptists and Catholics working together,” she said. “We’re not picking each other’s religion apart. We’re here to serve. That to me is a blessing.”
As the Wittman-led relief mission rolled past Carl Junction, she began telling stories of what a great place Joplin was to grow up to steel herself against what she was about to see.
Her great-grandfather was E.R. Moffett, the first mayor of Joplin, Wittman said.
She talked of walking to the pool at Cunningham Park, near her home, on those blistering hot southwest Missouri afternoons. She spoke of friends, including Jerry Carpenter, who grew up just six blocks from the Wal-Mart on Range Line that is now rubble.
“I’ve been through two tornadoes in Joplin, but nothing like this,” she said.
“We have this tradition at my high school called the Twerp Dance. Other places call it Sadie Hawkins. It’s where the girls ask the boys out on a date,” she said.
“There was this guy that I really wanted to date. So I asked him to the Twerp Dance. This was in 1973, and a tornado hit the school and they canceled the dance. I was so mad,” she said with a laugh.
She left Joplin in 1980 to attend school in Kansas City to prepare for her first career as a funeral director. Wittman said she was on duty on that July night in 1981 when the Hyatt Regency collapsed, and her employer, McGilley Funeral Home, began accepting and preparing the bodies for burial.
“We had six embalmers and I know how busy we were,” she said. “In a small town like Joplin, they may only have one or two embalmers.”
Wittman said the Catholic McGilley family is the reason she became Catholic.
“They didn’t require me to be Catholic, but they wanted me to know the ways of the Catholic Church,” she said. “I started going to Redemptorist and just kept going. The McGilleys were just so warm and kind, and I felt the goodness of the Catholic Church through them.”
Even before the tornado, Wittman knew that Joplin wasn’t the same city she grew up in.
“When I was growing up, it had 60,000 people. Now there are 50,000 left,” she said. “Springfield has taken a lot of the industry and a lot of the jobs, and it is a poor area.”
Wittman steered the mercy caravan to the east side of town, then down Fourth Street, past Missouri Southern State University, the primary relief center that had quickly filled up with both the suddenly homeless and donations pouring in from around the nation that secondary sites such as Forest Park Baptist Church were deployed.
So far, so good, Wittman told herself. Nothing looked damaged, not even a blade of grass. Power was on throughout that north part of the city, and businesses, including supermarkets, restaurants and gas stations, were up and running.
When she pulled into the huge parking lot at Forest Park, Linda Emmert met her and directed her to the congregation’s bus garage across the street. The church hall was full, but there still wasn’t enough supplies for the long term.
Emmert said she hadn’t slept much since Sunday night.
“For the first 36 hours, we didn’t sleep at all,” Emmert said, quickly adding that no one should even think of feeling sorry for her.
“We’re doing all right,” she said. “Our house is fine. The tornado missed us by a half-mile.”
Emmert said that Forest Park holds two worship services on Sundays, each for about 1,000 people.
“At least half of our people have come here to help, and churches from all over are sending people,” she said. “It’s just amazing, praise Jesus.”
Jason Gaither, a firefighter from Branson who was deployed to Joplin the day before, took a break from the church from his fourth search-and-rescue operation.
“I’ve had maybe five hours of sleep since I got here,” he said.
He said he doesn’t expect to sleep well after he gets home from what he has seen in Joplin.
“It’s just the look on people’s faces,” he said. “Some people ain’t got nothing left, and I mean nothing. They have lost family, their homes, everything they own. What do you say to a person like that? They are so grateful just to get a bottle of water.”
Rev. Kersey said Forest Park will continue to take donations as long as they come.
“We’ve got enough for right now, but the needs are going to be long term,” he said.
The congregation already knew what the needs are in Joplin even before the storm, he said, pointing to a house near the bus barn that serves as a community clothes closet.
“Every Monday morning, there are 45 to 50 people in line, waiting for us to open, just to get clothes,” he said. “So yeah, we’re accepting everything.”
He would especially appreciate a donation of snap-together Gorilla shelving to increase the storage capacity of the items they are receiving. Rev. Kersey said he will refuse to spend any of the cash donations for tornado relief on anything that will remain with the church.
After the three vans from Holy Spirit were unloaded, Wittman sent Northington and the Kusgens on their way back to Lee’s Summit.
She had to check on Aunt Virginia and Uncle Raymond, who lived on the other side of Joplin, through the destroyed swath of the city.
For a few blocks south of Forest Park, the city still looked normal, though traffic slowed to a crawl. Then the intense focus of the most powerful tornado on the scale burst into view.
Nothing was standing. Not houses, not businesses, not even telephone poles and trees.
“This is the worst thing I have ever seen,” Wittman said as she steered the minivan east.
The historic downtown area was untouched. But just south, small strip centers containing mom-and-pop businesses such as dry cleaners, car washes and small restaurants that represented the life dreams and savings of many people were flattened.
And home after home after home, reduced to kindling wood.
But Joplin was working already. “God Bless Joplin Down but not out” one person wrote in spray paint on what was left of a home.
Police from dozens of cities patrolled the streets, and stood alongside National Guardsmen directing traffic. Power crews from as far away as Memphis had already restored electricity to the relatively undamaged portion of the city as they worked non-stop to rebuild the power grid in the destroyed center of town.
Aunt Virginia and Uncle Raymond Bassett live on a quiet street, not far from destroyed St. John’s Hospital, which every national and local newscast has used as a backdrop.
Their neighborhood suffered mainly tree damage, but within two days, neighbors armed with chainsaws had managed to clear the street.
“People just got busy,” Aunt Virginia said. “That’s the way things are in Joplin. People around here, they get together and help everybody, whether they know you or not.”
A limb crashed through the roof over their dining room, but grandson Mike was there the next day, despite two cracked ribs, to at least patch it before permanent repairs.
Virginia and Raymond are there to stay. “There’s been nothing but Bassetts living in this house since 1933,” she said.
Their daughter Nancy Orton, Wittman’s cousin, is a registered nurse at St. John’s. She reported to the emergency triage center at Memorial Hall and had been working with only short breaks for sleep since then.
“Nancy was going to work yesterday when she saw a woman carrying two bags of clothes. She asked her if she needed a ride, and the woman said she would sure appreciate it,” Aunt Virginia said.
“The lady told Nancy that she was trying to find a place to get her laundry done, and she didn’t have any money,” Aunt Virginia said.
“Nancy took her out and got her some breakfast, then she gave her some money for lunch,” she said. “She gave Nancy a big, old hug.”
Aunt Virginia has also not lost her sense of humor.
“I was supposed to get a knee replacement at St. John’s on May 19th (three days before the tornado). My doctor called me up and said they were putting in some new computers or something, and had to delay my operation until June 8th,” she said.
“I guess I won’t be getting it then either,” she said.
Wittman had one more place to visit, and the place she dreaded seeing the most. It was to check on the house where she grew up, seven blocks directly north of St. John’s.
She wound her way west on 32nd Street, past the damage, to Shifferdecker Boulevard, then north to 26th Street, right back into the heart of the storm’s path.
She turned north on Maiden Lane and saw that Cunningham Park, the park of her childhood, was in ruins.
Wittman took a deep breath and turned east on 19th Street. “What is it about the house you grew up in,” she asked.
“It’s the memories,” said husband Bruce.
A few blocks later, there it was completely. Not a shingle on the ranch house out of place, not a blade of grass disturbed.
“That’s it. That’s the house I grew up in,” Wittman said.
“Thank you, God.”
How to Help
Even though donations are pouring in, Catholic Charities officials in Joplin said the recovery from the May 22 tornado will continue for months, if not years.
Items most needed include money to support the relief efforts, as well as non-perishable food, work gloves, cleaning supplies, and personal care items such as soap, toilet paper, feminine products, and money.
Donations to Kathy Wittman’s efforts to provide needed supplies can be taken to Our Lady of the Presentation Parish, 130 NW Murray Road, Lee’s Summit, or to any Dickinson Theater in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph is also assisting with direct staff support and by collecting monetary donations for Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, serving Joplin and the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.
Donations can be made online at the Kansas City-St. Joseph Web site, www.catholiccharities-kcsj.org. Click “Give” then scroll down to “Type of Donation” and select “Joplin relief.”
Checks written to Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri will also be accepted by the local Catholic Charities, or can be mailed directly to Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, 601 S. Jefferson St., Springfield, MO 65806, with the notation, “Joplin.”
Catholic Charities USA is also accepting donations for relief not only for the victims of Joplin but for the victims of all the spring storms throughout the nation. Donations can be made online at www.catholiccharitiesusa.org, by phone at 1-800-919-9338, or by mail at Catholic Charities USA, P.O. Box 17066, Baltimore, MD 21297-1066.