Dental Heroes: Helping a community rebuild

2011 07 01 11 37 21 890 Hal Patton 70

The residents of Edwardsville, IL, are no strangers to tornadoes. They've had several warnings this year, and a couple have touched down just outside the city limits.

But none has come close to the severity of the one experienced by the residents of Joplin, MO, on May 22. Winds of up to 250 miles per hour killed 156 people and left a path of destruction a mile wide and 8 miles long, right through the heart of the community.

Hal Patton, DDS
Hal Patton, DDS, and several other Edwardsville, IL, residents formed the Joplin Spirit charity to help with the rebuilding effort in Joplin, MO.
In the weeks following the disaster, Hal Patton, DDS, and several other Edwardsville residents formed a charity called Joplin Spirit to help with the rebuilding effort.

The charity started as a group of friends taking the four-and-half-hour trip to Joplin to clean up and drop off supplies. Since then, they've partnered with Habitat for Humanity to secure building materials and labor for newly constructed homes with Habitat's guidance. Now they're challenging others to put forth a similar effort to rebuild Joplin's community "one by one, until it's done," as Joplin Spirit's motto states.

Dr. Patton said he was awestruck by the scenes from Joplin and felt compelled to act.

"It started the weekend after the tornado hit," he recalled in an interview with "I sent some emails out on Friday saying I'd like to go to Joplin with a crew, some chainsaws, and supplies."

With 11 men and women initially on board, he sought out a point of contact in Joplin.

"We connected with New Creation Church," Dr. Patton said. "We weren't even sure what denomination it was. We just knew that they were accepting workers and supplies."

All photos courtesy of Hal Patton, DDS.
The EF5 tornado (the most violent category of tornadoes) struck Joplin, MO, on May 21, carving a trail through the center of town more than 1 mile wide and 8 miles long.
All photos courtesy of Hal Patton, DDS.
Dr. Patton and his team pitched in with the debris-clearing effort during their first trip to Joplin.
All photos courtesy of Hal Patton, DDS.
"200-mph winds can move cars through the air, and when it hits your house, it just makes confetti out of it," Dr. Patton said. "There are literally houses that were wiped away where you couldn't find a single thread of clothing to say, 'Oh, that was mine.' "
All photos courtesy of Hal Patton, DDS.
A stockpile of supplies collected for the people of Joplin.
All photos courtesy of Hal Patton, DDS.
153 people fell victim to the storm.
Helping a community rebuild
2011 07 01 11 37 21 622 Joplin Image1
All photos courtesy of Hal Patton, DDS.
The EF5 tornado (the most violent category of tornadoes) struck Joplin, MO, on May 21, carving a trail through the center of town more than 1 mile wide and 8 miles long.

They acted quickly, putting an announcement in the paper and setting up a supply collection station at a local grocery store the following Wednesday.

"We didn't collect a single thing that night," Dr. Patton said. A storm warning in Edwardsville kept everyone off the street and in their homes.

Without any promotion, they staged another collection effort at the grocery store.

"The next day I would have been happy bringing only the work crew and a few items down to Joplin, but we filled up a 20 by 8 by 8-foot trailer to the top," Dr. Patton said. "I was astonished! We didn't even solicit, we just had a sign on the side of the trailer and people would ask, 'What do you need. What can I get you?' " He estimated that nine out of 10 customers who entered the store purchased supplies to donate.

"That's where the name Spirit came from -- here and in Joplin," Dr. Patton explained. "From seeing the volunteerism and different layers of government doing their absolute best to pull the pieces back together. It's a human spirit, whether you're a religious person or not. The human spirit of us coming to each other's aid was very moving for all of us that went."

Seeing Joplin firsthand

While the team's contacts tried to prepare them for what they would encounter when they first went to Joplin, seeing it firsthand still had a profound impact, Dr. Patton said.

"You can't describe it -- the intensity, how widespread the destruction is," he said. "It smelled like cooked wood -- the smell was very strange. The experience will just set you back on your heels."

During that first trip to Joplin, Dr. Patton learned that three dental offices had been destroyed. "One gentleman had just invested $300,000 to $400,000 in remodeling his office," he said.

With a deeper understanding of the challenges Joplin faces, the group began looking for other ways to help.

“A goal of mine is to spread the concept to other communities.”
— Hal Patton, DDS

"We came up with a concept that would challenge other communities to help out a family and build a home," Dr. Patton said. "We found that Habitat for Humanity was the best conduit for home building since they have the paperwork, protocol, and everything in place. Several of our members had experience with them."

As the charity's efforts expand, labor is divided based on each team member's expertise.

"The members of my group are regular people," he explained. "The president of the local rotary, marketing people from Anheuser-Busch, tree removers, a major business owner -- we're a mixture of personalities."

Dr. Patton describes them as "doers," people who show up at every meeting, work on their projects, and pitch in without being asked.

"Marketing and fundraising works on the website, writes press releases, and creates fundraising concepts. The construction team is working on donations and planning for the habitat project. Myself and another have political experience, so we're working with our governmental agencies," he said.

One of those agencies is the Edwardsville school district, which includes roughly 7,500 students. The superintendent has offered to make a school supply donation effort their top fundraising goal for the year.

"In Joplin, the buildings are insured, but not the contents of the schools, the textbooks, desks, and chalkboards," Dr. Patton said.

Joplin Spirit has also moved swiftly to prepare for new home construction. "We've already had a commitment for all the electrical supplies, the plumbing, and we think we have a roofer and his crew lined up to help us once we get set up," he said. A local lumberyard will donate the lumber, and prisoners at an area correctional facility will construct the walls for free. Currently, the team is working to arrange transportation for the materials.

A 90-day moratorium on construction in the core area will limit their efforts to the perimeter of the tornado's path. In the meantime, Joplin Spirit is moving forward with its plans to support the long-term rebuilding effort. After two weeks of work, Dr. Patton's team produced a template specifically outlining what items they need and plans to solicit area businesses for assistance.

"A goal of mine is to spread the concept to other communities and have local representatives take up the effort," Dr. Patton said. "It's going take the entire country to put this community back together. It's not something Missouri can do by itself."

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