A group of 67 Houston citizens traveled Friday to Joplin to assist the tornado-torn community.

The effort was led by First Baptist Church of Houston, which through a church member connected with College Heights Christian Church in Joplin. The church is the official distribution center for all supplies brought into the city. First Baptist was joined by members of Ozark Baptist Church, the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams at Houston High School and the business office at Texas County Memorial Hospital.

For eight hours, the Houston crew helped clear debris in yards on Grand and Missouri avenues in Joplin. They were just blocks away from Joplin High School — one of the hardest-hit facilities from the EF5 tornado that ripped a 13.8-mile path through the southwest Missouri community on May 22.

“It’s literally an unbelievable sight,” said Jeff McNiell, who organized the trip. “There are miles of neighborhoods with nothing more than piles of debris. It’s a sobering reality to know people were inside these smashed homes as the tornado ripped through Joplin. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen or hope to see again.”

A majority of the volunteers were teenagers. There were 31 workers from First Baptist. All but eight were members of the youth group.

“It means everything to be able to come and be part of this,” said Drake Yocom, youth member at First Baptist. “You look on the news and think, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’ Then you get here and everything is a huge mess

“It’s just total destruction. Everything is ripped part. The trees have no bark on them. It’s incredible.”

The official death toll in Joplin is unconfirmed. Officials and media outlets have said at least 139 people were killed — and some had upped that number to 142. On Monday evening, the Missouri Department of Public Safety said 113 bodies had been identified and relatives notified.

As of Monday, 29 people remained on the “unaccounted for list.”

Along with helping clean up debris and search for personal items in the rubble, the Houston convoy brought two trailers of supplies to Joplin that had been collected throughout the week.

The groups piled debris from former homes curbside to be picked up at a later date. Specific items went in separate piles as instructed by FEMA. Around mid-afternoon, the group from First Baptist moved locations to help an elderly man locate the contents of a box that had been in his closet. They were able to find his military binoculars and dog tags.

Ozark Baptist assisted at several homes, including one where 12 people had survived the tornado. The home was completely obliterated.

The groups, which left Houston at 6 a.m., returned around 10 p.m.

“It was a good experience for us to get the kids out here and have an opportunity to see the damage and things that have gone on that you don’t get when you watch the news,” said John Wisdom, pastor at Ozark Baptist. “To be able to talk to families that need help and see that you’re doing something to help in the situation is a good thing.”

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