JOPLIN — It’s hard to miss the skeleton of St. John’s Regional Mercy Hospital that remains a symbol of the tornado that tore through Joplin a year ago today.
But the students, faculty and parents of Irving and Emerson elementary schools turned their backs to it Tuesday morning and faced an empty lot that is not just the site of a new school but also a symbol of hope.
"It's a big step," said Emerson Elementary PTO President Hollie DeBerry, 29.* "I don't think anyone thought we would be this far in just one year. To start school on time was one thing, but to have all three groundbreakings just a year later is incredible."
Irving Elementary was destroyed in the May 22, 2011, tornado, as were East Middle School and Joplin High School. Groundbreaking ceremonies for those schools, plus a new elementary school to be built near the middle school, were scheduled for later Tuesday.
Emerson Elementary School was also leveled in the tornado, and those students will attend Irving. The land was deeded to the school district by Sisters of Mercy Health System, and voters passed a $62 million bond issue for school construction projects last month.
"I'm happy because we are getting a bigger and new school,” said Sam Moore, 7, who will be a second grader next year at the new school. "I hope I can make new friends."
Even though students are coming from two different schools, they are already a family, said Britney Parker, 28, who teaches music at both schools.
To symbolize their unity, both school choirs sang together at the groundbreaking. They performed "Hold Us Together," by Matt Maher and "Waka, Waka" by Shakira.
"We didn’t want to do anything specifically related to the tornado," Parker said. "We wanted to say we made it this far but hope doesn't end today. We still have a long way to go."
Students even had a role in the designing the new elementary school. They didn't like the original architectural plan, so the new design is wrapped in a colorful exterior, said Debbie Fort, the principal of Irving Elementary.
The majority of children who attended Irving and Emerson elementary schools also lost their homes in the tornado, but the school year has gone surprising well, DeBerry said.
Even though they did not attend school in old, familiar buildings, teachers said the school year created a sense of normalcy for them. They were reunited with their classmates again and could share stories about the tornado.
"I got to see all my friends again," Bennett Dall, 7, said. "It's been a really good year."
Tuesday's anniversary was a day to remember and honor those whose lives were lost, and the groundbreakings became a way to celebrate the future.
Seeing the kids at the ceremonies made everything worthwhile, said C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin school system.
"The groundbreaking gives us hope," said Emerson fourth-grade teacher Brittany Pittman, 32. "It takes our eagles from somewhere temporary and gives them a home."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.