JOPLIN — As the May 22 tornado bore down on her home near 26th Street and Wall Avenue, Heather Wyrick grabbed her three children and ran to her basement. She held one child in each arm and put the third child under her legs, hoping she could protect all three.
As the 200-mph winds ripped apart the house, Wyrick clung tightly to her children, praying, she said, that God would not force her to choose which children to save.
When the storm subsided, Wyrick and her three children — Emma, 9; Gracie, 5; and Jaxon, 2 — were alive, but like thousands of others, they were without a home.
"It was scary trying to figure out what we were going to do," she said. "Then we realized our car was totaled, and then the house started filling up with (natural) gas. We were worried because we could see other houses on fire."
Wyrick recently received the surprise gift of a fully furnished home, compliments of a couple she met just a few weeks ago.
After witnessing the damage in Joplin during a business trip, Larry and Donna Graves, of Anthony, Kan., decided that they wanted to help. When their daughter, Julie Martin, told them about Wyrick's situation, they set things in motion. Martin had learned about Wyrick's predicament from a mutual friend, but the two women had never met. It was enough to get the Graveses interested.
"(Donna Graves) called me at work one day and said she wanted to meet me and my family and asked us to go to lunch," Wyrick said. "I thought that was odd, but we did, and she said, 'We'd like to help you with something,' I didn't know it would be like this."
Donna Graves said Wyrick initially didn't think she deserved the help.
"We met her and took her out to lunch one day, and she was like, 'Why do you want to help me? ... I have my children and my job, and there a lot of people out there who are worse off than I am,' which says a lot about Heather," Graves said. "She works at the Lafayette House and is used to helping others, so it was strange for someone to help her."
Donna Graves said she and her husband considered buying Wyrick a car, but another charitable person had donated one to the family. The only thing that Wyrick lacked was a house, so the Kansas couple went to work. They searched for a rental property but found the market stressed by displaced victims, with rent rising fast.
"Ten thousand people lost their house, so everybody's out there looking," Larry Graves said. "The first place we went with her to look at a house, it should have rented for $300, and (the owner) wanted $1,500 for it. I said, 'Before I do that, I'll just buy a house,' and it started leading to this."
Larry Graves said he is thankful that he and his wife could afford to buy the house for Wyrick and her children.
"I decided I'd take some of what I had and help Heather," he said.
The Graveses worked with local real estate agent Don Meredith. After seeing more than 100 homes and searching for hours on the Internet, the couple found a house on East Wickersham Drive in Webb City. But, buying the house was not enough for the couple. They spent the next couple of weeks renovating the house and filling it with new furniture. Donna Graves took special care in decorating each child's room.
"Emma told me how she wanted her room, and we tried to make it close to exactly what she wanted," Donna Graves said. "She said she wanted her own bed. She didn't want to sleep with Gracie anymore because she kicks."
Two-year-old Jaxon's room features a sailboat bed, while his sisters' room is pink with butterflies and flowers. The house also contains family portraits that the Graveses obtained from one of Wyrick's friends who is a photographer in Kansas City.
Wyrick's aunt, Dionne Zebert, said the Graveses' charity reaffirms her belief that there are truly good people out there.
"It's wonderful," Zebert said of the house. "It's perfect for her — I mean a good established neighborhood, a fenced-in backyard, and the house is sound and good. It's just perfect."
Donna Graves acknowledged that the search and the remodeling were hard work, but she said helping a family in need made the effort worthwhile.
"She's just a really neat person, and her kids are fun," she said. "We're thankful to be a part of their lives."
For Larry Graves, the house, the furniture and the materials are all money well spent.
"I could have the money in a CD or I could have it in a person, and I'd rather have it in a person," he said.