Two weeks after a mile-wide tornado tore through this city, killing 161 people and rendering a landscape of apocalyptic devastation, the public school system here received a telephone call from a man working for the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington.
“Tell me what you need,” the embassy staffer said.
Six schools, including the city’s sole high school, were destroyed in the May 2011 disaster. Insurance would cover the construction of new buildings, but administrators were scrambling to replace all of the books that had blown away.
Instead of focusing on books, the staffer wanted “to think big.” So the school system’s development director pitched the most ambitious plan that came to mind, a proposal to obviate the need for high school textbooks that had been shelved two years earlier because nobody — not the cash-strapped school system, not the state of Missouri, not even local charities — had the money for it: Give every student a computer.
Today, the nearly 2,200 high school students in Joplin each have their own UAE-funded MacBook laptop, which they use to absorb lessons, perform homework and take tests. Across the city, the UAE is spending $5 million to build a neonatal intensive-care unit at Mercy Hospital, which also was ripped apart by the tornado.