As the home of the Missouri Southern State University (MSSU) men's and women's basketball teams, Leggett and Platt Athletic Center often plays host to visitors. The athletics season is over for this academic year, but the facility, along with others on the school's Joplin, MO, campus, recently has been bustling with guests for a number of other occasions that range from joyous to tragic.
On Saturday, the family and friends of 691 graduating students filled the athletic center for MSSU's commencement ceremony. Joplin High School graduates walked the same stage on the following day to receive their diplomas. Just hours later, with very little warning, a tornado estimated to be up to a mile wide tore through the city, savagely destroying all that laid in its path.
Today, Leggett and Platt Athletic Center is serving as a Red Cross shelter for those who were displaced from their homes by the tornado. The university building that so recently was full of people contemplating a bright tomorrow for themselves or for a loved one is now filled with people for whom the immediate future probably looks fairly bleak.
Media reports estimate that up to a third of the city was leveled by the tornado, which is so far known to have exacted a death toll of at least 116 lives from Joplin's fewer than 50,000 residents. The Missouri Southern campus—which reportedly signed an agreement only three weeks ago to collaborate with the area's local Red Cross chapter on emergency response issues—escaped damage and now is at the center of many of the relief efforts in town.
A Red Cross Client Hospital has been set up in the university's Health Sciences Building to provide medical care for the injured because Joplin's main hospital, St. John's Regional Medical Center, was ravaged by the storm.
The large-scale, open areas of many of the university's athletics and recreation facilities make them natural choices for other campus-centered relief efforts. Along with the Red Cross shelter at the athletics center, MSSU's website reports that its Young Gymnasium also is open to those in need of food, shelter or other essential services, and that its Beimdiek Recreation Center, which opened as part of a $14 million renovation and expansion project in 2009, is currently serving as a resource center for AmeriCorp volunteers. An Associated Press story reported that the university's football field had briefly served as a makeshift morgue.
Last month, after seeing on the news the destruction that another tornado had done to the town of Tuscaloosa, AL, I checked in with a contact there at the University of Alabama. Like MSSU, the Alabama campus escaped damage, but my contact's home did not. He did not go into details but simply told me that he was lucky to have so many people around him to help in his time of need. I felt humbled by his ability to call his situation “lucky” and realized that his positive attitude would probably be as helpful to him as those friends and family in getting through it.
Joplin's residents have lost a great deal, and it will undoubtedly be impossible for many to visit some parts of the MSSU campus in the future without reflecting on those losses. But I hope that in time those unpleasant memories will be balanced by more positive ones. Those facilities that today are filled with many people feeling sadness and despair have so often been the places where the people of Joplin experienced the joy of the home team's victory, the exhilaration of a great workout and even the hope of a bright future—and soon, they will be again.