DII Coaches Band Together for Joplin Tornado Relief

DII Coaches Band Together for Joplin Tornado Relief

NEW ORLEANS – Saturday will be a day full of competition, joy, and humility in the southwestern Missouri town of Joplin. The NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships are coming to town, and, while there’s nothing new to the emotions evoked from a national championship, this event will be special for all involved.


The host town – a humble place in the Show-Me State with just over 50,000 people and laying just a stone’s throw from the Oklahoma and Kansas borders – was forever changed on May 22, 2011. That fateful day an EF-5 tornado ripped through town leaving udder devastation in its wake, destroying thousands of homes and killing more than 160 people. Hundreds more were injured, multiple school buildings and businesses were demolished or gutted, and the St. John’s Medical Center was wrecked as a result.


The campus of the championships’ host institution Missouri Southern State University became a refuge and beacon of hope in the days, weeks, and months following the tornado. The gym that normally housed basketball games had been transformed into a Red Cross shelter. Faculty and staff from MSSU pitched in to accommodate those in need.


Although the NCAA selected Joplin as hosts of their third DII meet long before the storm, it became obvious to the coaches of Division II cross country to band together for the benefit of the battered town.


At the December 2011 convention of the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) a group, headed by DII Chairman Aaron Russell of Lock Haven University, wanted to help and the “Joplin Initiative” was born.


The following is a quick Q&A with Russell on the efforts that took place:


You were at the forefront of this idea, what were some of you thoughts on starting this drive?


Joplin has been such a great host for NCAA competition over the years, and many of us Division II coaches have visited on a number of occasions.  To watch the devastation on the news back in May 2011 really made me feel as though a member of my family had been in the middle of it all.  I think a lot of Division II coaches shared the sentiment.  When things really hit home for a lot of us, however, was at the 2011 Division II Track and Field championships when we all got to talk with Patty (Vavra) and Tom (Rutledge) – head women’s and men’s coaches at Missouri Southern—and hear firsthand accounts of what they, their communities, and the Missouri Southern teams had endured.  It was heartbreaking.


At the USTFCCCA Coaches Convention that December, Patty and I were discussing how things have progressed in Joplin with the recovery, and the long road the community had ahead of them.  It really struck me that with Joplin hosting the 2012 cross country championships an amazing opportunity was presenting itself. I mean, Joplin had experienced this tremendous devastation, and yet they were still welcoming us with open arms.  I felt it would be a great disservice if we didn’t do something to give back to them, and I really felt that as coaches, we needed to make sure our student-athletes understood the enormity of what had happened.  Division II emphasizes the principles of service, learning, passion, resourcefulness, sportsmanship and balance to its members, and what better way to encompass all of these than through the Joplin Initiative.  It was discussed with representatives of each Division II conference, and a lot of excitement was generated.  Our goal was to talk about Joplin with our student athletes and have them get creative and organize ways to raise money.  Many teams really took on the challenge, and we’ve seen everything from t-shirt sales, raking leaves, hosting road races, and run-a-thons to donations from meet collections, entry fees, or parking charges.  It’s really been great to see how they’ve responded.


Katie Holmes with the NCAA has also been very supportive in our endeavor, and has offered tremendous guidance.


How much was raised and who benefits?


Checks are still coming in, but we’re just about to hit $30,000so far.  Two-thirds of the funds raised are going to the local Joplin School District to help with programs for children impacted by the tornado.  The other third is going to Missouri Southern State University’s Tornado Relief Fund.


The check will be presented at the awards banquet on Saturday night after the championships.  Missouri Southern’s President along with the Superintendent of the Joplin Area School District will be on hand to receive the check.  There will also be a small video presentation played showing the destruction done to the area, and the community’s efforts to recover.


Also, at the opening ceremonies on Friday night, flag bearers will be assigned to each team from the Joplin Area School District.   They will also remain with the team on Saturday as they assist with collecting team’s warm ups and getting them to the finish area.  Just another great element that has been able to be worked into the championships to help teams feel connected to Joplin.


Overall what are your thoughts on how the efforts went?


We’ve had over 45 schools participate in the Joplin Initiative, which I’m very proud of.  Of course you’d always like 100% participation, but it’s still awesome to think that 45 teams across the country put hundreds of hours into helping out.  Their efforts have helped to touch many lives here in Joplin, and I’m pleased so many are going to get to see the results of all their hard work.  As coaches, I think it’s been very rewarding to see our athletes embrace this Initiative with such passion.  Witnessing their compassion, leadership, and civic-mindedness has been as rewarding as any title our teams could win.  The great thing about the Joplin Initiative being included in the awards ceremony is being able to show the athletes that they are all winners in this endeavor.


Can people still get involved? What’s the best route to do so?


We will be continuing to take donations as long as contributions come in.  Anyone interested in helping out:


Checks should be made out to –

Missouri Southern Foundation

* In MEMO portion of check, you must write XC Tornado Relief


Mail checks to –

Missouri Southern Foundation

Missouri Southern State University

3950 East Newman Rd.

Joplin, MO. 64801


* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Check out the Facebook group for more information …



The messages on Facebook told the story of the fundraising efforts. California (Pa.) raised over $2,500, Adelphi contributed $214, Edinboro throws in over $1,500 through T-shirt sales. The message played out over-and-over on the social networking site.


Athletes at Humboldt State raised $250 at a time with community service projects, adding the message on Facebook by saying, “our student-athletes are gaining good experience in ‘giving back’ to Joplin and the community feedback has been very appreciative to our program and the NCAA for its efforts.”


As with all disasters, there will perpetually be heartbreak and more work to be done, but it’s the will of the people – from both near and far – that help bridge that gap. The normalness of life – found in things like a cross country meet – bring us together as a people and ushers in a way to move on from tragedy.


The Division II Cross Country Championships will be held on Saturday with the men’s race starting at 10:30 a.m., central, and the women’s race at 11:30 a.m., central. The men’s squad at Adams State and the women’s team at Augustana (S.D.) are the top-ranked teams in the division. Live coverage of the event will be broadcast on NCAA.com.


More articles from programs on the efforts taken for the Joplin Initiative: