Since 2011, nearly 1,500 volunteers have called the Quonset Hut Mission Station their home during mission trips to Joplin, Mo. But the time has come to decommission the station, and with it bring a successful end to a three-year recovery effort by United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to rebuild the tiny Missouri town struck by a tornado.
"Joplin has come a long way in the nearly three-and-a-half years since a massive tornado devastated the area," said Zach Wolgemuth, executive for UCC Disaster Ministries. "Since that time the town has hosted thousands of volunteers assisting in everything from debris cleanup to home reconstruction. The transformation in the community is amazing. New homes now stand as reminders of the loss, as well as the hope and renewal that followed."
South Joplin Christian Church will celebrate the closing of the Mission Station, which played an integral role in housing UCC and Disciples volunteers, with Disciples and UCC regional and conference ministers, volunteers and friends. The event on Sunday, Aug. 24, officially marks the end of the churches long-term response and volunteer efforts in Joplin’s recovery.
"The outpouring of love by the volunteers has blessed many lives in the Joplin community and the church," said Kathryn Wilson, minister of mision and outreach of South Joplin Christian Church. "The outpouring of love and hospitality to the volunteers has blessed the lives of many who called The Station home while in Joplin."
When the first volunteers arrived at the Quonset Hut Mission Station in 2011, the large red banner that reads, "Welcome to the Station: Your Mission Starts Here," greeted them. Since then, more than 1,450 volunteers from 23 states have assisted in the area, enjoyed the welcome of South Joplin Christian Church, and donated 51,000 hours of faithful service to help return families to their homes.
"For many, the celebration that will be taking place on Sunday will be a reunion," Wolgemuth said. "This is a time to celebrate the work and the relationships. Many of the volunteers that served here left a piece of their heart with the people they served and are now coming back to celebrate the recovery with their fellow brothers and sisters and to share in this event."
Bill and Ellen Matten, members of St. John’s UCC in Boalsburg, Penn., are attending the decommissioning ceremony on Sunday. The couple spent two months as long-term volunteers in Joplin and made new friends in the process.
"During our two months we became good friends with a number of folks in the congregation and the pastor." Ellen said. "We decided we wanted to go back again because they did a marvelous job rebuilding Joplin."
The Mattens, who are both retired, spent February and March 2013 in Joplin after they were convinced by friends to experience long-term mission work, and have made disaster recovery a bit of a calling card after spending time at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss.
Ellen spent her volunteer time in Joplin as a hospitality coordinator, welcoming new groups as they arrived to the Mission Station. Bill was a construction site coordinator, working on sites with experience and inexperienced volunteers and teaching them new carpentry skills.
"We talk in the UCC about extravagant welcome, and the church gave its volunteers an extravagant welcome," Ellen said. "The folks all over Joplin were welcoming and task-oriented to get the cleanup done. Everyone we worked with was anxious to do the best they can do."
May 22 marked the three-year anniversary of the catastrophic, mile-wide twister that tore through Joplin, killing 158 people, injuring 1,150 more, and causing $2.8 billion in damage.
A partnership with non-profit agency Rebuild Joplin gave the thousands of volunteers locations to work, and in 2013 the UCC and DoC sponsored the build of a new home for a Joplin family, which took just 56 days to complete.
"There was lots of support in the early weeks and months following the disaster. As time went on fewer and fewer volunteers and support was available for the community, yet the need continued," Wolgemuth said. "I’m so appreciative that our volunteers were unwavering in their support. Their long-term presence told each family, ‘We still love you and we have not forgotten about your needs.’"
The Quonset Hut, built on the church’s property in 1947 as a youth center, was damaged when the tornado passed through Joplin in 2011. Though the congregation considered taking the structure down, it was re-purposed as a shelter for volunteers.
With some grit, hard work and some donated labor and materials, the hut re-opened on March 18, 2012.
On Sunday, Quonset Hut begins a new chapter and new mission for South Joplin Christian Church.
"This is not the end of the journey for this ministry," Wilson said, "but the beginning of where it will lead us next."