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On Anniversary of Deadly Storm, Joplin High School Honors its Graduates

In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, Michele Skalicky highlights a celebration taking place five years after the deadly storm.

Sunday was a day of celebration for some in Joplin, a community devastated five years ago when an EF-5 tornado swept through the middle of the city.  While it was the anniversary of the deadly storm, it was also graduation day for Joplin High School.

Dr. Kerry Sachetta, Joplin High School principal:  "My name is Kerry Sachetta, and as principal of Joplin High School, I would like to welcome you here today on behalf of the faculty and staff of our school.  This marks Joplin's 130th high school graduation ceremony."

Eighteen-year-old Emily Huddleston was among about 435 students who crossed the stage at Missouri Southern State University’s Leggett & Platt Athletic Center to receive her diploma.

Announcer:  “Emily Huddleston” (cheers)

Emily Huddleston
Credit Michele Skalicky / KSMU
Emily Huddleston Prepares to Shake Hands with Governor Nixon

She and her classmates had an unusual high school experience.  They spent their first two years separated from the juniors and seniors as the high school operated out of two different buildings after the old school was destroyed in the storm.  A new high school opened its doors to students in the fall of 2014.

Huddleston was injured when the tornado picked up her family’s vehicle on their way home from seeing her brother graduate, carried it about six blocks and dropped it at the end of her street. 

A large portion of her outer right thigh had to be removed.  After surgery five years ago, the seventh grader was told her days of running track competitively were over.  But she was determined to prove the doctors wrong.

"The very next year they had a memorial 5K for the tornado, and I ended up running that and placing second in my age group," Huddleston said.

That same determination will carry her through college—she plans to start school in August at MSSU where she’ll study pre-medicine, a career choice she says the tornado pushed her towards.

"My dream job would be to be a surgeon, but I guess we'll see where  my first few years of college take me," she said.

At the graduation ceremony, all was quiet after Joplin High School principal, Dr. Kerry Sachetta, announced a moment of silence in memory of the seven students and one staff member who were killed on May 22, 2011. 

Dr. Kerry Sachetta:  "We all know too well about the tragic events of five years ago.  Today may we remember all the people from Joplin and the surrounding area who lost their lives or who were injured.  Five years ago today we also lost Zachary Williams.  He was a classmate in the class of 2016."

Emily Huddleston
Credit Michele Skalicky / KSMU
Emily Huddleston Stands Next to an Eagle Statue at Joplin High School

Sachetta said, as a district, they’re very close to being back to normal.  The tornado destroyed or damaged nine Joplin public schools, including the high school.  Four all new school buildings, including the combined high school and technology center, have been built since 2011.

For the students, it’s still a work in progress.  According to Sachetta, Joplin’s young people have the scars of knowing people who lost their lives in the storm and seeing their town changed.  But he said they’re moving forward.

"I think for most people, you know, it's just a new chapter.  I think it's a good time--it's a good time to be an Eagle here.  I think that we have a lot of good stuff going on for the kids, and we're just going to make that better through this tragedy," he said.

Governor Jay Nixon was the commencement speaker at Joplin’s graduation Sunday.  He called the event “yet another Joplin milestone.”

Nixon told the graduates they’ve inspired him, our state, our nation and the world.  He said they’re probably tired of being reminded of the tornado because they don’t want it to define them.  They are, he said, so much more than those few terrible moments five years ago.

"But you have lived through an extraordinary time in Joplin's history and responded in an extraordinary way.  Some of you lost family and friends.  Some of you were injured.  Many of you lost your homes.  But what you never lost was your spirit," Nixon said.

Lessons they’ve taught him, he said, include resilience.

"Your resilience showed up at 5:42 on May 22, 2011, and, you know, it hasn't quit," he said.

Other lessons he’s learned from Joplin residents are the power of teamwork and perseverance.

"No one could have imagined how far this community could go in just five years with homes, schools, churches and businesses rebuilt and prospering, but you persevered and got it done," he said.

And he’s learned from Joplin to give thanks even when all our worldly possessions are blown away.

"So tonight I give thanks from the bottom of my heart to the class of 2016, to your teachers, your family, your friends for the example you have set for the rest of us," Nixon said.

Dr. Kerry Sachetta:  "This class has met all the requirements prescribed by the Joplin Schools Board of Education and the State of Missouri for graduation exercises."

It was a proud moment as principal, Dr. Kerry Sachetta, watched the seniors march across the stage in their caps and gowns Sunday.  But it was bittersweet to see them go.  He said they’ve been “very good leaders” at Joplin High School.

"They've held their head high.  They've been through the old Memorial campus in their eighth grade year--some of them were not in the same school that they were at before, they went to a different middle school at different temporary locations--so they've been through a lot, and I think the lessons that they've learned from their families and the community about focusing on moving forward and becoming better out of a tragedy is important, and I think they're a testament, and I'm very proud of what their accomplishments have been," he said.

In all, around 435 students received their diplomas at Sunday’s graduation ceremony.  They tossed their hats in the air and marched out with proud smiles on their faces—ready to take on the world.

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