Hero Teacher on a Mission: Rebuilding Joplin Schools

A high school in Joplin, Missouri, which suffered the brutality of the May 2011 tornado. As these schools struggle to rebuild, you can help.
 

On the evening of Sunday, May 22, Debby Guardino was watching television at her home in Virginia when a breaking news report flashed across the screen. A tornado had touched down in Joplin, Missouri, leaving a wake of devastation.

“As soon as I saw the initial report, I was thinking: ‘This looks like it could be really bad,’” Guardino tells TakePart. “My heart just went out to the victims right away.”

As news of the destruction continued, the 50-year-old special education teacher worried about Joplin teachers. Their schools were reduced to piles of rubble. Their hard-earned classroom resources were completely gone. Guardino wanted to do something to help.

Sitting down at her living room computer, Guardino logged on to DonorsChoose.org—a website that allows individuals to fund classroom projects requested by teachers in high-need schools.

When she saw that Joplin teachers had seven projects posted, she reached out to friends and family using Facebook and Twitter, and got all seven projects funded in four days.

But with her own school about to let out for the summer, Guardino felt she could do more. A self-proclaimed DonorsChoose expert, she had funded 55 of her own classroom projects through the website. Guardino decided to put her fundraising expertise to work for Joplin schools.

SOCIAL NETWORKING OVERDRIVE

After sending several e-mails back and forth to Joplin officials, Guardino hatched a plan: She would travel to Missouri on July 5 and spend 12 days instructing teachers on how to use DonorsChoose.org. “I thought that it would be a great way for teachers who had lost their classrooms to start to rebuild,” she explains.

Not wanting to arrive empty-handed, Guardino spent the next few weeks in front of her home computer from morning until night, contacting anyone who might be willing to donate school supplies as gifts to teachers.

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"I'm just blown away by the power of social media." (Photo courtesy of Debby Guardino)

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she admits. “So many people were like: ‘Oh yes, I want to help!’”

Boxes of education materials poured into Joplin by the dozen. Learning Resources, with help from two sister companies, filled three 18-wheelers with everything from donated books to science equipment. The travel search website Hipmunk.com offered to pay for Guardino’s flight.

By the time her plane touched down in Missouri, Debby Guardino had single-handedly raised more than $400,000 in supplies for Joplin schools.

AN UNFORGETTABLE JOURNEY

Traveling through Joplin for the first time leveled Guardino.

“When you’re driving through the neighborhood, you just see every little piece of people’s lives ground up in between bricks and metal,” she begins. “Kids' toys, people’s clothes, everything looks like it was put in a blender, and thrown back out. There’s never been a tornado like that. In some places, the tornado slowed down and stopped for so long that it just churned and churned and churned. And that’s why in some areas, there’s literally nothing left. I can’t even find the words to describe it to people.”

Even before the tornado hit, Joplin was a community that struggled economically. Most of its schools qualified under Title I. As a result of the storm, about 50 percent of Joplin students were displaced from their homes. Eight schools were destroyed, and 260 teachers lost their classrooms.

“It’s been very hard for the children” Guardino observes. “A lot of summer school teachers I talked to said that the kids are very jumpy, and get scared if they hear a loud noise or if it starts raining. They’re nervous. Some kids aren’t talking that much. One teacher said that almost all of the kids’ pictures are about tornadoes.”

Guardino chokes back tears as she describes the educators and administrators she met during her visit. “The teachers there really care about their students,” she explains. “A lot of these teachers stuff food into their students’ backpacks. They make sure that their kids are okay even at their own personal expense. I don’t think people realize how much teachers take of their own and give to their students."

Guardino is especially moved by the stories teachers tell about surviving the tornado. Many lost not only their classrooms, but their homes as well.

Despite the trauma in their personal lives, Joplin teachers still volunteered to distribute supplies and participate in Guardino’s DonorsChoose tutorials. “The teachers were so grateful,” she recalls. “They were coming to get supplies, and they would just be crying. When they were getting trained on how to use DonorsChoose, they kept saying how thankful they were. They thought they couldn’t get back the things they had lost.”

A 65-year-old shop teacher told Guardino about Franklin Technology Center, a school that provided hands-on job training to kids who wouldn’t go to college. Franklin was one of the schools destroyed by the storm. “I’m 65, but I don’t want to leave and retire until I see that the program is back to where it was before the tornado hit,” he told her.

By the time Guardino left Joplin, she had overseen the distribution of all donated supplies, and conducted more than 20 computer classes. Under her guidance, teachers posted more than 200 projects on DonorsChoose.org. 

“My hope is that every single teacher who has a project up there gets it funded,” she says. “Not only so they can build their classrooms back to where they were, but so they can create the best 21st-century classrooms for their students.”

Some of the Joplin projects have already been fully funded; plenty remain.

BACK TO SCHOOL

On August 15, Joplin teachers will head back to school to set up their classrooms. Some will be located in FEMA trailers; others will be moved to an abandoned shopping mall or local warehouse.

Guardino looks forward to her return trip to Missouri in time for the big day. She and Joplin school official Melanie Dolloff have been busy planning a special surprise: the screening of more than a dozen minute-long videos made by celebrities to encourage Joplin teachers. “I don’t want to say who the celebrities are,” Guardino confides, “but we’ve got some really big names.”

The experience of helping Joplin schools changed Guardino’s entire outlook on life.

For one thing, it gave her a renewed appreciation for DonorsChoose, which she described as “a real game-changer for education. It empowers public school teachers to create the best classrooms and the best experiences for their students.”

Guardino also developed a greater respect for social networking. In her words: “I’m just a teacher. I’m not anybody special. But by spending a few weeks on a computer in my living room, I was able to generate $400,000 in donations. I’m just blown away by the power of social media. It’s made me more confident. I feel like I can do anything when I set my mind to it.”

Most of all, Guardino is more inspired than ever to continue reaching out to those in need.

“Joplin will always be a part of me,” she reflects. “It makes me think about how I can help other people.”

(Photo: Debby Guardino)

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