4 minute readDisaster, Volunteers
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My Thoughts from Joplin, MO

Red Cross Youth volunteer Jerrika Walkup, 15, has been helping people at the Red Cross shelter in Joplin, Missouri after a massive tornado tore through the town last week.  She is from Neosho, Missouri.

When the American Red Cross called me to ask if I could write a blog post about what I’ve seen and how I feel since I started helping in Joplin, I said “sure”, thinking it would be easy. After I started thinking about it and actually began processing the things I have seen, I started to wonder if I was ever going to be able to write this article. What I’ve seen and what I’ve been feeling is really hard to explain. I can’t even put it into words; it’s one of those things you have to go and experience for yourself to really understand and comprehend what kind of devastation has happened here in Joplin, MO.

Red Cross Youth volunteer Jerrika Walkup and Bryanna Cobb, 6, share a hug in the Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Mo. Bryanna’s family had been staying in the shelter after a tornado ripped through the town on May 22nd.

About a year ago my mom, who is a Red Cross Disaster Action Team member, asked me and my sister Sierra if we wanted to join the Red Cross as youth volunteers. Since I had already helped with feeding during a fire response, I said sure but after several meetings I started wondering when I would actually be needed and for what purpose. Then, Sunday May 22, 2011 happened and my sister Sierra and I asked our mom, “When are we going to help?” Despite currently recovering from a knee surgery, my mom eventually said, “Let’s go.”

The first day I went to the shelter at Missouri Southern State University. I thought it would be like all the other shelters I had worked at before, but I was wrong. This one was much bigger and had many more people in it. And there were so many children. The needs were immense.

I had only ever done feeding before in the other shelters I’d worked in but now in Joplin I was doing so much more. In addition to feeding at the shelter, I was also helping provide health care, child care and giving out basic supplies like toothpaste, soap and towels, anything the people needed. When I handed out some toothpaste to a guy, I thought about how sad it was and how hard it must be for him to have to ask for toothpaste from a stranger, much less a teenage girl like me. Somewhere deep down in my soul I had a kind smile for him but at the surface I wanted to cry.

On Tuesday there was another tornado warning and we had to rush everyone down to safety in the basement. I sat with a family, a mom and her 2 children, Bryanna who is 6 and who I am hugging in this picture. I felt such deep sorrow for all of the people downstairs, they were so scared. You could see it in their faces, some were crying, some were shaking, they were all hugging each other and holding on to one another. We were all like one big family, together and afraid. Sierra and I held children in our arms trying to comfort them, but honestly I myself was scared. I kept asking my mom, are you sure we are safe down here and even though she said yes, a part of me didn’t believe her. I kept whispering to God, please God, don’t let there be another tornado. I told my mom later that I was afraid we were all going to die. (Click here to see what you need to know before, during and after tornadoes and other disasters.)

As I worked in the shelter we fed over 300 people for each meal of the day. My sister Sierra and I also handed out a large trash bag full of our old toys and stuffed animals to the children in the shelter. Can you imagine being 5 years old and all your toys you were just playing with were gone in an instant? As we handed out toy after toy we were greeted with hugs from these children whose worlds had been shattered. We also passed out coloring books and crayons that we bought for the kids. I remember seeing Sierra coloring with a bunch of kids, trying to help them get back to being a kid – which I found both sweet and sad. What I felt I can’t really explain, but it’s a feeling I will never forget.

Sierra and I colored pictures with two little kids in particular that I will never forget. Their names were Alison and Jason and they were both 4 years old. After finishing their little masterpieces, these children gave me their colored pages. I think they will forever serve as a reminder to me of the kind of person I always want to be, the one that brings smiles to small faces that have been so scared and traumatized.

Though my sister and I find it fun and exciting to put smiles back on these children’s faces we also feel such sadness for these kids. They have lost their homes, their toys, saw horrible things and were frightened with a paralyzing fear that makes our hearts cry for them. They are locked in this huge building, sleeping on cots, and they can’t just go outside to play. I think about that, I think about that a lot. When we were giving the kids toys around the shelter, their faces lit up with such joy – joy over a toy – just some small object of hope to hold onto. I’m proud to know my sister and I was a little part of that hope.

I want to challenge all the teenagers out in the world to come together, get involved and help fix where we are failing. I hear a lot of adults talk about how we are a lazy generation and how worried they are about us. I think they are wrong, after what I’ve seen in Joplin and how people come together, I think that sometimes we just forget what is important. I’m asking all teenagers out there to join me to band together and help your neighbors in times of need. Put the video games down and turn off your cell phones and join me and my sister Sierra and help someone. Let’s remember that we are all brothers and sisters and let’s find a way to spread love and joy. There is good in all of us and it’s time we show the world what we can do.

As I end my post, I want to send a wish to all the people of Joplin, MO. I wish you all keep your sense of hope and the best of luck and love getting your lives back together. You are not alone and your neighbors will continue to support you.