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How people, including you, are coming together to help Joplin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2011 - "One State, One Spirit." The slogan on a new University of Missouri T-shirt to benefit Joplin tornado victims sums up the collective heart of Missourians since the depths of the devastation came to light.

Not surprisingly, the grey T-shirt is an instant bestseller -- 1,200 were sold in the first couple of hours -- said Tim Rich, executive director of the Heart of Missouri United Way in Columbia. Proceeds of the T-shirt sale go to a special Joplin relief fund set up by the Columbia chapter.

Rich said he is amazed at the giving spirit of the nation in the aftermath of the storm Sunday evening that killed at least 132 people and leveled neighborhoods in Joplin.

"Despite all the things that try to divide us and split us, we really are one people and we share that common human spirit," he said. "We have people calling in and saying 'I can't really afford this, but I'm going to give you $100.' We had a lady call last night. Her 7-year-old daughter said, 'Mama, I have to do something.' She went and got her piggy bank and donated $14. That's who we are as people. We are connected."

The Columbia United Way began accepting donations to its "United for Joplin" fund at 10 a.m. Monday and had collected $475,000 by Wednesday. A telethon in Columbia Thursday night boosted the total past $1 million, and the Joplin-based band "Never Shout Never" has pledged to raise an additional $1 million from fans.

Rich stressed that 100 percent of the donations will go to Joplin relief. The agency will pay the normal overhead costs associated with processing the donations, such as online and credit card fees.

Rich said that $200,000 was pledged by a Fortune 50 company that wants to fund a new long-term recovery project to work with small businesses as Joplin rebuilds. Rich said the United Way will partner with experts from Mizzou and Columbia business organizations on the small business effort.

"We have to take care of the people who have needs right now, and there is a massive outpouring for that,'' Rich said. "But if there are no businesses, and there are no jobs to go to, there is no reason for a lot of those folks who were displaced to return."

Rich said the Heart of Missouri United Way chapter, which is about a four-hour drive from Joplin, has been designated as the primary contact for disaster relief but will be working with the Greater St. Louis chapter and other United Way chapters in assisting the Joplin chapter as it becomes able to function.

The World is Watching on Facebook

On the"Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery" Facebook page, the list of fundraising efforts stretches past Missouri's borders, into surrounding states and beyond.

People are doing what they can: A bottled-water and diaper collection drive at the Bolivar, Mo., high school. A lemonade stand to raise donations at an electrical supply store in West Plains. Relief drives at St. Louis area churches. A nightclub in Austin, Texas, is holding a benefit concert, and a bar in New York has a happy hour in the works.

Brent Beshore, a board member of the Columbia United Way, grew up in Joplin and still has family in the area. He began setting up the Facebook page Sunday night as he sought information about the disaster in his hometown.

Beshore, who now lives in Columbia, said his family is safe, but he has friends who perished and he knows many people who have lost everything.

The Facebook page has garnered national and international attention and has more than 160,000 followers. Postings are a mixture of hope and sadness. Some comments offer assistance, in various forms. And prayers. Some seek information on missing Joplin residents. Others hope to find the owners of family photographs found in yards miles from the tornado damage.

"Talk about warming your heart. If I start reading the comments of people on the Facebook page I start to cry because it's absolutely amazing,'' Beshore said.

"We've gotten donations from every continent except for Antarctica at this point. We had a doctor call from Saudi Arabia. We've had an outpouring of support from corporations from around the country because they know they can get through to us and it's legitimate."

Beshore is the CEO of AdVentures, a private equity venture capital firm that invests in communication-based companies. Employees of the company, which has offices in St. Louis and Columbia, are working on the Facebook and fundraising effort.

"Stuff happens. And now we have to move forward and rebuild," Beshore said.

Ways to Help

Rich stressed that it is important for people who want to volunteer -- or donors who are conducting charity drives -- to work through established agencies. Don't just show up in Joplin. Some organizations report that they have been overwhelmed by truckloads of clothing and other donated items that have been dropped off by well-wishers. Cash donations are a good way to help and can be used by the agencies to meet needs as they arise.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.