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In Joplin, President Obama urges students to 'pay it forward'

KSMU's Missy Shelton contributed reporting for this story.

A commencement address from President Barack Obama capped a difficult year for the Joplin High School class of 2012.

An EF-5 tornado struck the southwestern Missouri town a year ago today, killing 161 people and injuring hundreds more. The storm destroyed five school buildings, including the high school. Students attended their senior year classes in a converted big box store.

"You're family now," the president told 431 graduates and their families who gathered at Missouri Southern State University for the commencement ceremony. "The people who went through this with you, the people who you once thought of as simply neighbors or acquaintances, classmates. Even though I expect that some of you will ultimately end up leaving Joplin, I'm pretty confident that Joplin will never leave you."

Watch Obama's full address below:


Joplin superintendent CJ Huff, his voice breaking, echoed that sentiment.

"Never, ever forget that no matter where you are, or what you do, your Joplin family loves you and believes in you," Huff said. "We are so very proud of you."

More than 50,000 volunteers from across the United States and the world descended on Joplin in the days after the storm. And President Obama urged the students to remember what they did for the city.

"There's so many good people in the world," he said. "There's such a decency, a bigness of spirit in this country of ours. Like that man who came all the way from Japan to Joplin, make sure in your own life you pay it forward."

Mariah Hutchinson applied for AmeriCorps after seeing how the service organization helped the city recover. She was accepted - and is waited to hear where she'll do disaster relief.

"I thought it was a privilege to have [the president] here at our graduation," she said. "It touched my heart to know that he truly cares about Joplin. Just him in general being here, giving everything he had to do what he could to help our graduation be better."