Honors fraternity says Joplin is home away from home

WKU freshman DJ McDonald, 19, from LeGrange, Ky., helps knock out a chunk of wall off Montana Place in Joplin, Mo., over fall break in October. WKU students and volunteers had to gut the house to the frame so it could be rebuilt.

Tessa Duvall

He’s said it once, and he’ll say it again.

“What’s my favorite quote? ‘There will be a Joplin Run for as long as Joplin needs us to run,” said David Serafini, adviser of Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity at WKU.

Advertisement

Serafini, along with 11 members of PSP and one other WKU student, traveled to Joplin, Mo., to help with recovery efforts on March 3 until March 7 for Joplin Run III, the organization’s third trip to the town.

On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado destroyed much of Joplin, leaving behind more than $2 billion worth of damage and killing 162 people. PSP members made their first trip in June and returned during fall break in October.

Serafini said the group helped with demolition efforts and debris removal this trip, but he could see a difference in Joplin’s recovery since the last trip, with more houses being built and businesses returning.

Although helping people was rewarding, Serafini said the highlight of the trip was undoubtedly meeting Mark Norton, the father of PSP honorary brother, Will Norton.

Will Norton, an 18-year-old graduate of Joplin High School, was killed during the  tornado that struck Joplin on his graduation day. Norton was driving home from the ceremony with his father when they were caught in the storm. His father survived, but Norton’s body wasn’t found until several days later in a nearby pond, just blocks from his home.

It’s because of Norton’s story that Serafini first organized a trip to Joplin to help with rebuilding efforts. On previous trips, the PSP group has met Tracey Presslor, Norton’s aunt, and Keegan Tinney, his best friend. In November, Norton was inducted into PSP as an honorary brother of the fraternity.

Mark Norton met with the WKU group in Cunningham Park — a park built by Extreme Makeover Home Edition near the remains of St. John’s Hospital — to receive his son’s membership pin and certificate from PSP.

“Here we are meeting with Will’s father and we’re in the shadow of this,” Serafini said. “Your heart comes up into your throat a little bit.”

Serafini said Norton was very appreciative and gracious.

“He knew who we were and he knew what we had been doing, and he was very honored,” he said.

With each trip to Joplin, Serafini said he feels closer to Will Norton and his story.

Chris Storath, a Hendersonville, Tenn., sophomore and PSP brother, agrees.

“I don’t know why I feel this way about some kid I didn’t even know, but for some reason I just have so much grievance for this kid,” he said. “It’s the whole reason we go to Joplin.”

Storath has attended every Joplin Run, and plans on going back for the fourth trip, which is tentatively scheduled to overlap with the one-year anniversary of the tornado. He also plans to take part in the memorial 5K in Joplin on May 19, if possible.

Although it’s emotionally hard to keep going back to Joplin, Storath said it’s one of the greatest things he’s done in his life.

“It didn’t really hit me until I first went in June and saw everything. Oh my gosh, what if this happened in Bowling Green?” Storath said. “I’ve got to keep going back.”

Savannah, Ga., junior Jerry Cowart was finally able to make his first trip to Joplin over spring break, something he has wanted to do since the Joplin Runs began.

Those who had been on the trips before knew what to expect when returning last week, but Cowart didn’t.

“I’ve never really, I’m thankful for it, but I’ve never seen or dealt with any major catastrophe,” he said.

“I was very speechless. It was just weird to think, I remember seeing this on TV,” Cowart said. “I’m actually where everyone was talking about.”

Now that he’s been once, Cowart says he plans to keep returning, possibly as soon as May.

“It’s nice to be able to help out people,” he said, “and a community here really needs our help.”