Saturday, November 09, 2013

From Spirit of Hope: The 2012 Joplin High School graduation

(In this sample chapter from Spirit of Hope: The Year After the Joplin Tornado, I write about the 2012 Joplin High School Graduation ceremony with the emphasis on Sarah Kessler, a graduate and one of my former students, who lost her home during the May 22, 2011, tornado. Spirit of Hope is available in e-book format for 99 cents now through 10 a.m. Monday.)

The smile never vanished from Sarah Kessler’s face as she listened to the names of one student after another being called onstage to receive their diplomas.

It takes a while to go through 431 names. Fortunately for Sarah, her name was closer to the beginning of the alphabet so she would have to stand in line for much less time than some of her classmates.

It had been an exciting evening for the tall, slender (“I’m a beanpole,” she says) senior. About an hour and a half earlier she had been in a room with the President of the United States. It was not her voice that said, “Oh, my God, the leader of the free world,”-that was a classmate- but she could understand the awe.

The Joplin High School Class of 2012 listened to seemingly endless speeches- from High School Principal Kerry Sachetta, Superintendent C. J. Huff, Gov. Jay Nixon, and yes, from President Barack Obama “the leader of the free world,” in a ceremony that started a few minutes late.

All of the speakers had praised Sarah and her classmates. “You are an inspiration,” the president had said, but somehow Sarah did not feel like an inspiration. As she waited, she thought back over the past year, the path that led her from the most horrifying moments of her life, some spent in this same building, the Leggett & Platt Center on the Missouri Southern State University campus, to where she was today, a few moments from receiving her diploma- her ticket into adulthood.

It still brought a shudder to her every time she thought about the events of May 22, 2011.

That weekend had been a big one for the Kessler family. A day earlier, the wedding of Sarah’s older sister, Kate, had taken place. Sarah and her brother, Will, had provided music for the occasion- Sarah on her beloved violin, Will on guitar.

“My entire family was in town,” Sarah recalled. The family stayed for another big event the next day, Will Kessler’s graduation with the Joplin High School Class of 2011.

The family watched with pride as Will received his diploma, had pictures taken afterward, and then Will left. “He had a party he was going to, so he left before the rest of us,” Sarah said. It was shortly after Will left that the tornado siren sounded.

As the rest of the Kessler family was about to leave, a security guard stopped them. “He told us we had to go to the basement. We didn’t have a choice. We were all wanting to leave.”

The guard escorted the family to the locker room area with five or six other families to wait out the storm. “We were down there for a quite a while,” Sarah said. It was there that they received word that Home Depot had been hit. “That’s when we started to get nervous about my brother because we live a block from the high school. One of the easiest ways to get from the college to my house was down 20th.”

Scaring the Kesslers even more was their inability to contact Will. There was no phone coverage in the locker room. “That was the scariest 30 minutes in my life, not knowing where my brother was, or even if he was still alive.”

Finally, they were able to contact Will. He had been driving through the heart of the storm. “He said he prayed the whole time he was in the car. He just got a new car and he is a good driver. Thank God for both of those things. He said was dodging flying cars, flying trees,” Sarah lowered her voice, “flying people.”

Will Kessler ended up at a church at 26th and Connecticut.

Now that they knew Will was all right, the family piled into two cars to head toward their home, which they now knew had been in the path of the tornado.

“We went down Rangeline, but that wasn’t going to happen. It was mass chaos everywhere, so we drove down side streets. It was terrifying; the closer we got to home, the worse the destruction. We wondered if home was going to be there.”

As what would normally be a 15-minute trip had already taken more than a half hour, Sarah’s dad received a call from Will.

“Where are you?” her father asked.


“Do we have a home left?”

“Sort of.”

Still seven blocks from home, Sarah’s dad stopped the car, jumped out and began walking. Sarah’s cousin took the wheel. After what seemed an eternity, Sarah was close enough to see her house.

“I will never be able to forget that. We were on Indiana and I can remember driving up to 20th Street. I could see clear to the hospital. There was nothing there. I saw the school, then I looked slightly to the left. Our house was built a little better than the ones around us. It was the least damaged. The lower level was still standing. You could see a part of the upper story where my brother’s room was.”

The first words she said when she saw what was left of her home will be forever burned into her memory. “I remember looking at it, crying, and saying to my cousin, ‘That’s my house. That’s my house.’ All I could think was it was gone.”

At that point, Sarah got out of the car, stepping over downed power lines, walking between cars. “I walked the path between the school and my house, the same as I had done every day since my freshman year.”

She spotted Will and ran to him, hugging him. The two stood crying. They checked on neighbors to make sure they were all right and then went into their house to see what had survived.

Much of the family’s irreplaceable sentimental items, including photo albums and papers, were unharmed since they were under their parents’ bed in the lower level. “We were able to salvage quite a bit,” Sarah said. “We were fortunate.”

And the one possession that Sarah cherished above all others- her violin- was also undamaged, as was her brother’s guitar. “We had played my sister down the aisle at the wedding and when we got home, we left the instruments downstairs in the hallway.”  Had they taken the instruments upstairs where they were normally kept, they would have been swept away.

“That was about the only happy thing that happened that night. I love playing the violin. It has always been special to me.”

For the next few weeks after the tornado, Sarah and her family stayed with Matt Proctor, president of Ozark Christian College, his wife, Katie, and their six children. Some of the time Sarah stayed with Rebecca McMillin, her best friend since kindergarten.

The Kessler family lost some of its animals, but “we found two of our rabbits and two of our cats.” The family also had two dogs, Hank, a yellow lab, and Rusty, a golden retriever.

After a few days, Rebecca McMillin talked Sarah into going to the Humane Society to see if her dogs were there. “I didn’t want to go. I was afraid I wouldn’t find them.” When they walked into the building with the dogs, “I saw Rusty right off the bat. I went up to the cage and he started barking.” When he was released, he ran into Sarah. “Basically, he almost knocked me over. It was so good to see him.”

Sarah was never able to find Hank.

A new home had to be found for Rusty after the Kesslers moved into an apartment, where they would have to stay for quite a while before their house could be rebuilt.

In the days following the tornado, many friends helped the Kessler family through its ordeal, including some they had never met before. “The people from our church (Central City Christian Church) were there for us. They helped us with our house and helped us move into our apartment.”

The summer was a blur for Sarah. After a couple of weeks dealing with the aftermath of the worst night of her life, Sarah had an opportunity to get away from it all for a short time, as she traveled with Ozark Christian College’s Highest Praise Choir, playing her violin. “It was nice to get away,” she said. “It was such an encouraging environment.”

When she returned, it was not to the home she had known for her whole life, but to a place she had never seen before. “I didn’t quite have a room. My room was full of boxes, so I stayed on the couch in the living room for a while, but that was okay. It took us quite a while to get everything put in its place. It was mass chaos.”

It was also not the home she knew. “We had just remodeled our house, spent the last two or three months before the tornado just totally redoing it. We had a beautiful new deck. I told everyone that next year, we would have to have all of our study parties at my house.

“Obviously, that didn’t happen.”

Sarah threw herself into volunteer work, helping Forest Park Baptist Church’s Mission Joplin. Sarah’s plans to spend her summer looking for colleges were tossed aside. That would have to wait.

Before she knew it, it was time for her senior year of high school to begin, not at the historic building she could walk to every morning, but in a box store at Northpark Mall. “I thought it would be poorly put together. When school actually started, it was so much better than I could have possibly imagined. It’s not the best, obviously, because it is not a permanent facility, but it worked.”

Sarah will never forget the first day of school at Northpark Mall. “It was all hugs and laughter and smiles. Even with people you barely knew, it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. I know you. You’re alive.’ “

That spirit continued throughout the school year. “The student body seemed to be closer. There is something that links us all together.”

As the school year passed, there were many positive moments such as using another tornado survivor, her violin, to earn a I rating at state and being a part of the Prom Court. “That was something totally unexpected.” Her fourth year as a member of Key Club, a service organization, was also a highlight. Sarah was lieutenant governor on the Missouri/Arkansas Board.

And while she didn’t have a deck for study parties, she had something even better. “We have a roof at our apartment,” she said. “The other night my dad and I had a candlelight dinner of beans and weenies on our roof.”

Even though the Kessler family will soon move back into a house, Sarah confided, “I kind of like our little apartment. We all secretly kind of like it.”

The experience of living through the tornado has helped strengthen Sarah Kessler’s faith. “I’m a Christian. I’m very proud of that. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is to trust in Him no matter what. No matter what the situation is, He will take care of you.”

God helped provide for her family, Sarah said, with everything from saving her brother Will the day of the tornado to helping them to cope with the aftermath of the storm.

“I went through, maybe not quite depression, but I wasn’t my normal, bouncy self for a while,” Sarah said. “When that happened, I needed to reconnect with Him. I learned that the more I make an effort in my relationship with God, the more joyful and hopeful I was, the more content I was.”

By this time, Sarah had moved to near the front of the line. In a few moments, her name would be called and she would leave Joplin High School forever. The next stop for Sarah will be Missouri State University in Springfield where she will study music education.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher since I was little. I like helping other people learn and I have a lot of patience. Teaching comes naturally to me.”

“Sarah Kessler.”

A smile spread across her face and there was a spring in her walk as she stepped forward to receive her diploma. She turned to her family in the audience and smiled, then she took a brief moment to give thanks.

The path to graduation had not been an easy one for Sarah Kessler, but the moment had arrived and she knew this was never something she could have done alone.

“One big lesson I have learned this year is that even when you can’t feel God’s presence, that doesn’t mean He’s not there. God has promised us he will never leave us.”

This time, Sarah felt His presence.

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