JOPLIN — "My heart will be forever changed after witnessing the strength and love of the Joplin community," writes Melissa.
"Thank you for your hospitality," said a message from the University of Texas School of Social Work at Austin.
"When nothing remains, your love and community prevail," writes Laura, of Little Elm, Texas. "Stay forever strong, Joplin."
Those messages are among thousands that have been scribbled on the walls, windows, floors and doors of the "Volunteer House" at 2502 S. Joplin Ave.
On Friday, the first steps to preserve the house, which took a direct hit in the May 22 tornado, were taken by a group of 20 volunteers who have raised private money to protect it from further damage by the elements.
A wood frame, including trusses, was placed around what remains of the former home of Tim and Stacey Bartow. On Tuesday, workers from Tracker Marine in Miami, Okla., will donate their time and the materials to wrap that frame in a heavy-duty plastic that would normally cover a new boat.
Eventually, the house will be moved to the old tennis courts at Schifferdecker Park. The house and other items, such as damaged cars, are being saved for possible use in the development of a museum in the future.
Tim Bartow said he is thrilled the messages will be saved.
"I think it is wonderful that their messages will be saved and preserved, and that we will get to honor these volunteers when they came to help us in our darkest hour," he said. "There is no way we could have done it ourselves — no way.
"These were messages that were left for the people of Joplin. They told us we will get past this. We will overcome this. To have faith," he said. "I am still amazed to see how many would come from so far away to help us — the love that they had for us. It's hard not to get choked up."
It started with a message that Bartow painted on the south wall of his house. He wrote: "Thank you volunteers. We love you. You are our heroes."
Bartow said he was approached early on after the tornado by Patrick Tuttle, with the city of Joplin, about preserving just that message.
"He (Tuttle) told me then that they would like to preserve the wall if we had no plans for rebuilding on the spot," Bartow said. "He said he wanted to preserve the wall for a museum at some point in time in the future."
Months would pass before Bartow would see Tuttle again. In the meantime, the house with its exposed furniture would become a gathering place for volunteers.
"They put messages to Joplin on the rest of the walls — on any place there was room to write. It took on a life of its own," Bartow said. "These were 'well wishes' for the community. It became a symbol of hope and love from the volunteers.
"For the first six to eight weeks, I was there a lot. Volunteers would come and hang out. They would sit and meditate, and sign their name."
When Tuttle revisited the house and read the messages, Bartow said Tuttle was moved by what he saw. A plan was hatched to save not only the wall but the whole house.
David Glenn, a commercial real estate broker in Joplin, volunteered to supervise the project. Tuttle said he asked Glenn to do it because of his experience in moving the Missouri-Pacific Depot at 10th and Main streets to 29th Street and Range Line Road. As was the case with the depot, photographs were taken of the house before the preservation effort began to ensure it will look as it did before the move.
Said Glenn: "There are messages here from Alaska, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. People came here from all over the country to help and give us hope."
The weather has taken a toll on the house in the eight months since the storm. Messages have been lost where paint has peeled away from the walls.
Said Tuttle: "If we don't preserve it now, we'll lose it, and we'll never get it back. When it's time for us to tell our story and how we were helped by people from all over the country, this house will help us do that."
Jose Garza, with Tracker Marine, and four other volunteers with the company — Nathan Hughes, Brandon Oakley, Tyler Williams and Bryan Berryman — worked to prepare the house on Friday for the wrap that will take place on Tuesday.
"We didn't have to search for a team to do this," Garza said. "They came to me and volunteered when they found out about it."
The plastic, which was donated by Transhield, will be precut at the Tracker Marine plant in Miami.
"We're really grateful that Patrick Tuttle contacted us," Garza said. "It's a good opportunity for us to give to the community. Several of our employees were directly affected by the storm. They lost their homes."
About 100 volunteers associated with the plant spent a weekend in Joplin after the tornado picking up debris.
When asked whether he had wrapped something as large as a house before, Garza said, "Never — never. Just 30-foot-long boats. We've never done anything like this, but we'll figure this baby out."