On May 22, 2011, a devastating F-5 tornado tore through the community of Joplin, Mo. With winds in excess of 200 miles per hour, anything in the tornado’s way was obliterated. Photos of the devastation show a community that has been flattened. Rubble heaps and bare-leaved trees dot the landscape.


In the aftermath of the tornado, the Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center, with help from a Toyota TogetherGreen grant, was able to offer help to the youngest residents of Joplin. The center provided free summer camps and nature programs to children in need. This kept the children safe while their parents worked to rebuild the city. The camps also helped the children learn more about how nature can help members of the community heal from the emotional effects of the tornado.


The work didn’t end when the summer was over; new educational programs were introduced during the school year. Participating students learned how to create rain gardens and the gardens they create will be installed throughout the city of Joplin as it rebuilds from last year’s tornado.


I asked Robin McAlester, executive director at the Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center, how the rain gardens will be used.


“A rain garden is an area that is landscaped typically with native plants that can withstand wetter soils for short periods of time. Their function is to allow rainwater runoff from roofs, parking lots, sidewalks, or other surfaces to be absorbed into the soil, rather than being quickly channeled to storm drains. The benefits range from reducing flooding to preventing lawn chemicals, vehicle fluids, pet waste, and other non-point source pollution from entering local waterways and degrading their water quality which affects wildlife and humans who use the waterways for recreation. By allowing the runoff to be absorbed into the landscape, many of these plants and soil bacteria are able to break down some of the pollutants into safer substances. This surface water is then able to help recharge groundwater supplies. All of this creates a greener community for people and wildlife. The native plants provide food and shelter to birds and other wildlife, and are beautiful additions to a landscape requiring little maintenance.”


I also asked McAlester about the choice to have children help in this aspect of rebuilding the city.


“We have noticed that there is a growing interest in youth to volunteer and help their communities become better, perhaps due to the increasing number of adults in their lives that are also volunteering more. While some of the debris clean-up after the tornado was too dangerous for some children to be involved in, we feel that by helping to recreate backyard habitats that were damaged in the tornado, they will feel as if they too are able to make a difference in our community. We used critical emergency funding from Toyota and Audubon’s TogetherGreen initiative to provide kids with free camps and nature programs throughout the summer so they have a place to be during the rebuilding and so they can learn about the impact they can make on the planet. By starting at an early age, we feel that volunteering will become a regular part of their lives, even after our community is mostly recovered from the tornado. Also, most children seem to have a natural affinity for living things including plants and animals, and if we can reach them now, perhaps they’ll develop a continuing interest in helping to protect and conserve our environment. They will see that even making small changes in our everyday lives can add up to make a big impact on the natural world.”


As a mother, I love that the center focused on the youngest residents of the Joplin, and I agree that this early exposure to volunteering will stick with them throughout their adulthood.


In addition to the rain gardens, the Audubon center is also working on replanting the trees decimated during the tornado. The community has already received 12,000 new trees with plans to plant an additional 12,000 new trees this fall.

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