The USTA SmashZone made a special stop in Joplin on June 30 at the Missouri Southern State University (MSSU) campus. The stop offered a glimpse of 10 and Under Tennis to the community of Joplin in an effort to boost the spirits of the children and families affected by the May 22 tornado.
Although the MSSU campus received little damage, the EF-5 rated tornado touched down south of campus and blasted a six-mile wide path through the middle of downtown Joplin. Without traveling far from MSSU, one can see the hundreds of devastated businesses, schools and homes damaged by the storm. Volunteers and residents continue to work night and day to clean up the city so they can start to rebuild the community. The rebuilding process will carry on for years to come as 153 lives were taken, making it the single deadliest tornado in nearly 60 years, according to federal records.
The MSSU campus was full of life earlier on the day of the storm as the 450 seniors of Joplin High School collected their diplomas in front of friends and family at graduation, which finished up shortly before the storm struck. Little did the graduates know, they would never return to their alma mater, which was one of the buildings that received the most significant damage.
"When I first went up to the school I noticed I didn't have to even go up to the door because I could see the inside of my classroom from the road," said Sean McWilliams, government teacher and head tennis coach at Joplin High School. "As I got closer, I could see through multiple levels of classrooms into the hallways. It was easy to tell all the pieces of debris had just been circling the hallways during the storm. We are very lucky that no students or faculty were in the building during the storm."
Even though no students were in the building when the tornado hit, two high school students tragically died, including one of McWilliams former junior varsity tennis players, Will Norton. Norton was driving home from his graduation with his father when the violent storm snapped his seat belt and pulled him through the sunroof of the car. His body was found in a nearby pond days later. "He was one of the kids at school that everyone loved and looked up to," said McWilliams. "He was passionate about many things and accomplished more than some people do in a lifetime, all while staying completely humble about his achievements."
With the devastation that hit Joplin, the USTA Missouri Valley was quick to look for ways to help the community, which includes 130 USTA members. The section reached out to all of its organizational members in Joplin to make sure they were OK. They started collecting diapers, food, batteries and other supplies to offer relief to victims of the storm. With SmashZone traveling across the country when the storm hit, tour coordinators decided to make a detour in their planned route. The USTA decided to bring SmashZone to Joplin as a way to boost morale in the community and offer some fun to the youth of Joplin, while at the same time introducing them to the USTA 10 and Under tennis initiative.
Along with SmashZone, the USTA Missouri Valley coordinated efforts to involve the tennis community in helping victims of the tornado through a donation to be utilized by the Joplin Schools Tornado Relief Fund. Joplin School Superintendent Dr. C.J. Huff and school board member Mike Landis accepted checks totaling $50,000 to benefit the school district and a $50,000 commitment for the rebuilding of the high school tennis courts.
Also present for the check presentation were the owners of the Millennium Tennis & Fitness Club, David Humphreys and his wife, Debra, who have also donated a significant amount of money toward rebuilding local schools. The USTA also worked with tennis manufacturers and retailers to collect equipment donations for local youth tennis programs. Additionally, the USTA provided a one-year USTA organizational membership to Joplin High School, Joplin Family YMCA, Joplin Parks and Recreation, and Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School. To further the USTA's support, proceeds from ticket sales for the Davis Cup Draw Ceremony went to the Joplin Schools Tornado Relief Fund.
"It has been overwhelming to have the support of the USTA and the country during these times," said McWilliams. "This money is really going to help the Joplin school rebuilding effort in the future."
McWilliams is currently raising funds to build a 15-court facility that the school district can use for gym class and tournaments. This facility will also be open to the public.
The highlight of the day was the 180 children that arrived by bus from the Joplin Family YMCA day camps. Children were able to participate in pick-up games on one of the four 10 and Under Tennis courts, interact with the many touch screen displays and compete in tennis skill games to win prizes.
"It is amazing to have so many kids able to experience tennis and just hold a racquet in their hand for the first time," said Marianella Padron, USTA Missouri District President and Executive Director of Tennis at the Millennium Tennis & Fitness Club in Joplin. "SmashZone is a perfect way to boost the morale in Joplin and take people's mind off the devastation. The Joplin community is not only benefiting from the SmashZone visit today, but will continue to benefit from the donations of funds and equipment for years to come as we are rebuilding the city."
As the kids loaded on to the buses to return to camp, they had huge smiles on their faces and free tennis balls in-hand. The volunteers for the event were all reminded in that moment that even though the tornado was heartbreaking for Joplin, and will not soon be forgotten, better days are on the horizon.
If you are interested in donating to the tennis and education programs in the Joplin area, consider donating to USTA Serves through USTAServes.com