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‘Now I want to help somebody else’

By Teresa K. Weaver

 

Joplin_Stokes-1.jpg
Tornado victim Anita Stokes moved into her new Habitat home in time to invite her entire family over for Christmas dinner.
©Habitat for Humanity/ Ezra Millstein

   

Anita Stokes, 57, and her 31-year-old son, Steve, rode out the storm in a hallway in the house where they had lived for 27 years. Steve shielded his mother as best he could, and they listened as the carport was ripped off the house.

“We just held on and prayed,” Anita said. “Loud, loud noise, and then it stopped. My son said, ‘Do you think it’s over?’ And I said, ‘No.’

“Right about then, it started in again, and a wall fell on us. I think that’s all that held us down and kept us from blowing away.

“After it was all over, we just laid there for a while,” Anita continued. “My son said, ‘Mom, do you think anybody will find us?’”

They could hear people crying and yelling, and Anita was able to maneuver out from under the debris and get her first look at her flattened hometown.

“It was like what you see in a movie,” she said.

Mother and son suffered multiple scrapes and scratches, mostly from nails in the wall that pinned them down, and Anita still has some nerve damage in one leg. “But we came out with no broken bones,” she said. “Most of the wounds are in our heads — the memories and the sounds.”

Unfortunate timing
Anita had made the last mortgage payment on her house two weeks before the tornado destroyed it. The insurance had lapsed, she said, because she had to make the impossible choice between paying that premium or buying groceries and paying utility bills.

“After the tornado, we didn’t have anything left but the clothes on our backs,” she said.

The two moved in first with Stokes’ daughter and then into a garage apartment before qualifying for a Habitat house. Anita works in food service at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin; Steve works as a housekeeper at Freeman Hospital.

“The most wonderful thing ever”
“In October, we started building this house,” she said. “And we moved in the weekend before Thanksgiving. It was the best thing that’s ever happened.”

On Christmas Day, Anita invited the entire family — including her elderly parents, who also lost their house in the storm — over for a holiday meal.

“This was the first time I ever had my whole family over,” she said. “We had a really good time, and when we were walking them out to the car, my dad looked at me and said, ‘Nita, your mother had been crying, thinking she wouldn’t have anyplace to go.’

“It was the most wonderful thing ever, having my family over to my house.”

Inspired to help others
As part of her sweat equity, Anita hammered a lot of nails, installed siding and painted, working alongside volunteers from all over the world.

“The day we moved in, an older man came up to me and said, ‘I stained your cupboards and put them up!’ And his wife said, ‘I helped clean the floor!’ I was just overwhelmed at how many people helped.”

The experience made a lasting impression. When a tornado hit Branson, Missouri, in February 2012, the Stokeses got in their pickup and headed in that direction.

“All these people had helped me,” Anita said. “Now I want to help somebody else.”

Return to the series home page:
‘You can see hope here’: One year after the 2011 tornadoes

 

Related:
‘They know this is their house’

Thomas and Samantha Short counted themselves among the lucky ones after a monster tornado hit their hometown.

Tornadoes and flooding in the central U.S.
Our local Habitat affiliates are leading the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Learn more about this disaster recovery and how you can help.