JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — One worked in financial services. Another was an insurance agent. A third had recently finished law school and embarked on a legal career.
Then came the tornado.
The twister that blasted an immense hole in this Missouri city almost nine months ago also smashed the carefully crafted career plans of many young professionals. With much of their community in ruins, they abandoned secure corporate jobs to devote themselves to the town's long recovery.
"After the tornado, I just felt like I needed to be doing something more fulfilling," said Zach Tusinger (TUH-sihn-gur), a St. Louis University law graduate whose own home escaped damage but whose aunt and uncle were killed. "We saw our whole world turn upside down. When I went back to work, it was killing me."
Tusinger, 26, quit his job practicing insurance law at a private firm. He now helps low-income tornado survivors as a Legal Aid attorney.
Kate Massey, 30, who worked in client services at Edward Jones investments, cut short her maternity leave when her daughter was just six weeks old to become executive director of Rebuild Joplin, a community nonprofit.
As the storm clouds drew near on May 22, Massey's family headed out to celebrate her 3-year-old son's birthday. They survived the tornado by huddling in an Applebee's kitchen with other customers and restaurant workers. The restaurant wasn't damaged, but the twister touched down just four blocks away.
The EF-5 twister, one of the deadliest in American history, killed 161 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. It left behind a nearly 14-mile trail of damage that virtually split the city of 50,000 in half.
The next morning, Massey's efforts to help began in the workplace: Several Edward Jones offices in Joplin were among the damaged buildings, and employees at the St. Louis-based company rallied to help co-workers who lost their homes. Clients also suffered, including the family of 18-year-old Will Norton, who died while driving home from Joplin High School's graduation.
"That's how it started," Massey said. "Everybody had a friend or a family or a co-worker affected. As those needs diminished, we realized there needed to be more done."
Amanda Bilke, 33, left her job as a State Farm Insurance account manager in January to join Massey at Rebuild Joplin, where she is now the volunteer coordinator. She too had a close call: The tornado hit her boyfriend's home, just 30 minutes after the couple had gone their separate ways for dinner.
"We were busy for months just working on claims, just making sure people were taken care of," she said. "It felt like I was doing some really worthwhile work, especially helping people. But I just felt like I needed to be doing something more."
Exact numbers of people who left corporate jobs to join the recovery effort are difficult to determine. But local leaders say the influx of public servants has been noticeable.
"It's wonderful. It's another example of the miracle of the human spirit," said Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr. "Joplin is underrepresented in the younger ages as far as leadership is concerned. This sets the stage for them to play a bigger role not just now but also in the future."
The new blood isn't limited to those in their 20s and 30s.
Tom Long spent 26 years at manufacturer Leggett & Platt Inc. in the nearby town of Carthage. The 50-year-old said he took a significant pay cut to join Rebuild Joplin as director of operations.
"This is a total departure from what I was used to," he said. "In my previous life, when we became nonprofit, we lost our jobs. This is very different for me. I get to see how (what I do) affects people, instead of numbers on a spreadsheet."
The Joplin organization has aligned itself with a New Orleans-area nonprofit created in 2006 to help build new homes for Hurricane Katrina victims.
Zach Rosenburg, director and co-founder of the St. Bernard Project, went through a journey similar to those of his Joplin colleagues. He left his Washington, D.C., law practice to spend two weeks as a Katrina volunteer. Within months, he and his partner had relocated to New Orleans.
"What we saw that was so striking was what caused us to come back," he said. "And that was problems that caused a massive human toll, and problems that were pretty damn fixable."
Communities recovering from disasters depend upon people who approach problems with a fresh perspective — a function less of youth than of an absence of agendas, Rosenburg said.
"If you want things done different and better, you get people from the outside whose loyalty is to progress and improvement, not a structure," he said.
For Massey, the tornado provided an epiphany, a reality check that caused her and other survivors to reassess what is truly important.
"When you're gone, at the end of your life, what do you want to be remembered for?" she said. "How much money you made or what impact you had?"
Those who have devoted themselves to rebuilding "want to work ourselves out of a job as quickly as possible," she added. "For all of us, we're here until the day the last house is built."
Rebuild Joplin: www.rebuildjoplin.org
Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter (at) azagier