In the beginning, their role as man-on-the-street counselors was simply to listen—to allow that person standing in front of them to share his story. And everyone, it seemed, had a story to share.
JOPLIN, Mo.—In the beginning, their role as man-on-the-street counselors was simply to listen—to allow that person standing in front of them to share his story. And everyone, it seemed, had a story to share. Some had lost everything. Some had lost nothing. But everyone was grieving.
Organized by Ozark Center and on the streets of Joplin less than a month after the 2011 tornado, this small army of counselors known as the Healing Joplin team placed themselves in the heart of the destruction, offering emotional first aid. They gave whatever was needed to the person at hand—food or drink, an ear to listen, a connection to resources so life could be rebuilt. As the community moved forward, Healing Joplin team members provided counseling at business re-openings, memorial events, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housing park, helping the people of this community heal emotionally while the physical scars started to fade.
As the months progressed, they developed a unique—and often life-changing—perspective on the spirit of Joplin.
“Because of my experience with Healing Joplin, I look at people completely differently,” said Camille Midcap, Healing Joplin team leader. “I’ve learned that even though our exact reactions may not be the same, there is a common thread between all of humanity. Everyone wants to see the best in a situation. Those interpretations of what is best might be different from person to person, but, in the end, we all want to overcome this. We all want to be resilient.”
Just as Joplin transitioned from phase to phase during this past year, so too will Healing Joplin. While offering emotional first aid to individuals initially, in recent months Healing Joplin turned its focus to community support groups. As the one-year grant program, funded by FEMA and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, comes to a close, those groups will also be phased out.
“Throughout the course of their year-long program, the Healing Joplin team made a lasting impact on this community,” said Phil Willcoxon, Ozark Center Chief Executive Officer. “Ozark Center is truly proud of what they accomplished.”
Throughout their year-long journey, the team offered aid to 28,277 people. When team members approached people in the debris zone, more often than not they found individuals wanted to talk about what had happened to them that evening in May 2011.
“We would talk with them—often right there at the site of their former home—and try to help them develop a plan to get their life back in order,” said Debbie Fitzgerald, Healing Joplin grant coordinator, Ozark Center Supervisor of Crisis Services, and licensed professional counselor. “Through those meetings, we’ve been able to equip them with the tools for recovery.”
Of the nearly 30,000 individuals Healing Joplin made contact with, 8,123 requested follow-up assistance. While 90 percent of the population has not required long-term counseling to help deal with the tragedy that struck the community, it is still beneficial for individuals to speak to a crisis worker so they may understand that their emotions are normal.
“Although Ozark Center staffs a 24/7 crisis hotline, most do not make that initial call because they do not believe they are in need of psychological counseling,” said Vicky Mieseler, Ozark Center Vice President of Clinical Services. “Healing Joplin has brought tools to residents of this community, empowering them to deal with the turmoil in a healthy way.”
Midcap said, despite the differences in experiences, most in Joplin have taken a similar route to recovery.
“Initially, people would first tell us of the physical things they had witnessed—the loss of lives, the destruction. Then they might open up about their emotions,” she said. “Now it seems to be the reverse. The majority have gotten to the place where the physical damage has somewhat subsided, and they realize they want to talk about those feelings they have not been dealing with for the past year.”
That is why the support groups established by Healing Joplin proved helpful, Midcap said. They gave Joplin residents a connection to others who have lived through the same turmoil.
As Healing Joplin comes to a close, team members said the experience is one they will carry with them forever.
“Survivors look at us and think we were trying to give them something, but what they didn’t know is that they were giving to us,” Midcap said. “To be part of someone’s life in this way is an opportunity most people don’t have. They say we have changed them, but they have changed us too.”
About Freeman Health System
Based in Joplin, Missouri, Freeman Health System is the area’s only locally owned, not-for-profit health system, serving southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas, northeast Oklahoma, and northwest Arkansas. Freeman provides comprehensive healthcare and behavioral health services, including cancer care, heart and vascular care, neurosciences, orthopaedics, and women’s services, with more than 300 physicians representing 60 specialties. For more information, visit freemanhealth.com or facebook.com/freemanhealthsystem, or follow Freeman President and Chief Executive Officer Paula Baker at twitter.com/freemanceo.
About Ozark Center
An integral component of Freeman Health System based in Joplin, Missouri, Ozark Center provides comprehensive behavioral health services to children, adults, and families in an area that includes more than 450,000 residents from Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Ozark Center continually looks for innovative ways to address the mental health needs of the community and promote awareness of mental illness in an effort to eliminate the discrimination associated with it. For more information, visit ozarkcenter.com or call 417.347.7600.