CARTHAGE — Fifteen miles away from Joplin's ground zero and out of sight of the debris and rubble left behind on May 22, those impacted by the EF5 tornado are getting some help.
At least a couple of days each week, a volunteer crew of 20 women gather at First Baptist Church in Carthage. Upstairs, in an out-of-the-way room kept cool by oscillating floor fans, they bend over tables covered with stacks of photographs: a couple exchanging vows, a child's first day of school, an ultrasound.
The photographs have been scattered in yards as far as Oak Grove — 218 miles from Joplin — collected by those who found them and taken to Southwest Missouri Bank branches throughout the area. A courier picks them up weekly and delivers them to the church.
Last Monday's intake was 200 photographs.
The importance of the photographs is not lost on their temporary caretakers. They wear clear plastic gloves and are careful to wipe each photo clean, scraping away bits of dried mud with a sharp blade and a steady hand if warranted.
They search the backs of the photos for names, dates or any sign of the photos' owners.
One thing they know for certain: The owner lost not just the photo, but probably also a home and possibly a life in the storm.
"There are some here that are ripped, some that are smudged, but I just keep telling myself that if I can get them back to the families — even part of a picture — well, I would want one back if it had been mine, no matter what the condition," said Brittany Bridges, a Carthage teacher who is overseeing the cleaning and documentation effort. "In some cases, that might be all they have left."
The effort has grown since the storm, beginning as a Facebook project by Amanda Walters, whose page is called Lost Photos of Joplin, MO Tornado, and Abi Almandinger, whose page is titled Joplin's Found Photos. Visitors to their pages immediately began posting found photos with contact names or numbers. As days passed, connections were made.
The number of found photos grew by the day and now tops 8,000.
"I knew it could be a lot, but I never imagined it could be this big or involve this many people," Walters said earlier this week from her home in Pryor, Okla. The project faced a hiccup, she said, when several thousand photos were collected from a storage building leveled by the tornado.
"They were not collected properly, left damp in boxes and totes and plastic bags, and we had to stop everything and dry them, or else they'd be lost forever," Walters said.
Of the 1,000 she posted online, about 200 have been returned.
Almandinger, a Carthage resident, has also had many success stories. The assistance of First Baptist Church became a turning point.
The city of Joplin approved the church as a repository, and 20 of its members — about 15 percent of its congregation — stepped forward to help.
It was a natural connection, said church music director Thad Beeler, who has taken on the role of the photo project director for "as long as it takes."
"These pictures, they're a timeline of the human experience, birth through death," said Beeler, gesturing at a table that included photos of children dressed in Halloween costumes and a man's and woman's hands on their wedding certificate. "That's what brings the church so much into this. We can make a connection with our community during a disaster, and this is really what God has put the church here for."
Carthage-based Four State Office Products donated numerous boxes, Office Depot donated boxes and envelopes and a contact at the Red Cross helped them track down scanners so the photos can be electronically archived.
"This is a huge responsibility to us, and we claim it as such," Beeler said. "For the folks in the church world, I don't care what denomination it is, we connect with people because of these type of life experiences. We are always there during those times that are the most difficult, the biggest crisis. That's why we chose to get involved, because we understand that time in people's lives."
Church leaders also knew that, if not at first, perhaps later, the volunteers involved with the photo project might be impacted emotionally.
"We've warned them of that, that it is easy to get personally attached, and we're going through a grief counseling training session now with our pastor, John Davidson," Beeler said.
The church also has plans to offer grief counseling to those with whom its members reunite any photos, particularly if the photos are of someone who died in the storm.
"We plan to hand-deliver the photos sealed in an envelope, and those who do it are aware of the potential psychological impact of receiving something like that," Beeler said.
Donna Turner, a retired Carthage teacher, will be heading up the effort to reunite photos with their owners and is "eager and anxious to get going, although I imagine it will be very emotional."
A 1987 graduate of Joplin High School, Beeler was at church when the tornado ripped through Joplin and all but destroyed his parents' home.
"What hit me when I finally got there that night was the part of the home that was untouched — the center portion with the pictures on the walls going down the hallway — and yet I could look out and see the neighbor's house completely gone," he said.
It has crossed Beeler's mind that the next batch of pictures found and turned in could include some that came from his parents' drawers or closets.
"You never know what the next picture is that you're going to pick up off the table," he said.
Lost photos have been found and turned in from numerous Missouri towns, including Willard, Springfield, Branson, Stafford and Carthage, among others.