JOPLIN — Visitors to the new St. Mary's Elementary School are greeted by a statue of Mary salvaged from the old school, which was destroyed by the May 22 tornado. The statue still shows some of the mud left by the storm.
The Joplin Area Catholic Schools system begins classes Tuesday, and St. Mary's students will start their school year like some of their counterparts in the public school system — in a warehouse converted into classrooms by long hours of work through the summer.
St. Mary's Principal Stephen Jones said 210 students attended the Catholic elementary school on May 20, just before the tornado. He said last week that enrollment for Tuesday is up to 205 students.
An open house last week gave many families a peek at the new school, which is next to McAuley Catholic High School in a building that already was owned by the school system.
"This is the first time I've been in," said Angela Wrobleski, who has two children attending preschool at St. Mary's. "I think the location is going to be really nice to have all the Catholic schools so close together."
Jones said the school is fortunate to have the warehouse. A few years before, the school system received a bid of $60,000 for demolishing the building. Had the bid been significantly lower, the building probably would have been torn down, he said.
"We thank God for giving us that high bid a few years ago, which kept it here," Jones said.
The tornado hit about 10 days before the last day of school, so students didn't have a chance to say goodbye to friends, said Jim Kastler, who has coordinated donations to the Catholic schools since the storm.
"They didn't really get to have closure at the end of school," Kastler said. "Now they'll get a chance to say 'Hey, we're all together again' and see their teachers."
The school has received countless donations since the tornado, ranging from an envelope stuffed with $7.27 in lemonade stand proceeds to $25,000 from Freeman Health System. Combined, the donations total more than $100,000, said Renee Motazedi, development director for Joplin Area Catholic Schools.
One of the most touching gifts, Motazedi said, was the donation of three school buses that were driven 1,300 miles from Long Island, N.Y., without air conditioning during one of the hottest summers on record.
"As they drove into the parking lot, we started to cry," Motazedi said. "It was about the generosity and the sacrifice those individuals made. They didn't know us, but one of them said, 'The only reason I do this is so I can see the look on your face. It was gold.' It was an incredible and great gift."
Some donations have come from closer to home.
When Cassie Chandler, a 12-year-old who went to St. Mary's last year and will now go to nearby St. Peter's Middle School, was planning her Aug. 13 birthday party, she asked that donations go toward rebuilding St. Mary's in lieu of presents.
Cassie held a three-hour dance party, complete with a disc jockey, at Twin Hills Golf and Country Club with 40 of her friends. She decorated a box for the donations and also had family members give donations instead of presents. She raised $950.
Her mother, Kathleen Chandler, said she is proud of her daughter's generosity. She said that while the family was not directly affected by the tornado, her daughter knew people who had been hit, and that made an impact on her.
"She felt the same way in her heart as I did in mine, that we didn't think it was right to ask people to buy presents," Kathleen Chandler said. "She wanted to turn it around into something positive."
Motazedi said an overwhelming number of the donations have come from Catholic churches, schools, religious orders and individuals across the country.
"It's an example of Catholics giving to Catholics," she said. "We stick together. We have an understanding and empathy for the plight of others. It's a real emotional point for parents."
Motazedi said that while St. Mary's is well-equipped for school on Tuesday, it still is accepting donations to go toward families and to the school system.
Neal Group Construction and Restoration helped convert the old warehouse to be used as a school. Jeff Neal and his family are members of St. Peter the Apostle Parish.