President Obama traveled to Joplin, Missouri yesterday, to mark the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that nearly destroyed the entire town. He addressed graduating seniors and their families at Joplin High School:
Last year, the road that led you here took a turn that no one could’ve imagined. Just hours after the class of 2011 walked across this stage, the most powerful tornado in six decades tore a path of devastation through Joplin that was nearly a mile wide and 13 long. In just 32 minutes, it took thousands of homes, and hundreds of businesses, and 161 of your neighbors, friends and family.
And yet, the story of Joplin isn’t just what happened that day. It’s the story of what happened the next day. And the day after that. And all the days and weeks and months that followed. As your city manager, Mark Rohr, has said, the people here chose to define the tragedy “not by what happened to us, but by how we responded.”
As you begin the next stage in your journey, wherever you’re going, whatever you’re doing, it’s safe to say you will encounter greed and selfishness, and ignorance and cruelty, sometimes just bad luck. You’ll meet people who try to build themselves up by tearing others down. You’ll meet people who believe that looking after others is only for suckers.
But you’re from Joplin. So you will always know that it’s always possible for a community to come together when it matters most. After all, a lot of you could’ve spent your senior year scattered throughout different schools, far from home. But Dr. Huff asked everybody to pitch in so that school started on time, right here in Joplin. He understood the power of this community, and he understood the power of place.
So these teachers worked extra hours; coaches put in extra time. That mall was turned into a classroom. The food court became a cafeteria, which maybe some of you thought was an improvement. And, yes, the arrangements might have been a little noisy and a little improvised, but you hunkered down. You made it work together. You made it work together. That’s the power of shared effort and shared memory. Some of life’s strongest bonds are the ones we forge when everything around us seems broken. And even though I expect that some of you will ultimately end up leaving Joplin, I’m pretty confident that Joplin will never leave you. The people who went through this with you, the people who you once thought of as simply neighbors or acquaintances, classmates—the people in this auditorium tonight—you’re family now. They’re your family.
And so, my deepest hope for all of you is that, as you begin this new chapter in your life, you’ll bring that spirit of Joplin to every place you travel, to everything you do. You can serve as a reminder that we’re not meant to walk this road alone, that we’re not expected to face down adversity by ourselves. We need God. We need each other. We are important to each other and we’re stronger together than we are on our own.