America’s Proms: An Emotional Night in Joplin

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 As part of a look at proms across America, TIME visited Joplin, Missouri, where a resilient group of high school seniors found a way to celebrate with a little help from their friends.  You can find more on proms including “Last Dance,” a photo essay by Gillian Laub, on Lightbox at TIME.com.

A year after the Joplin tornado, streets in this small Missouri town still don’t have street signs. Bark-stripped trees have re-grown leaves in odd tufts. High school seniors are graduating with their “mall degree,” a joke on the fact that their temporary school is situated in the Northpark shopping mall.

But the prom must go on.

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“We wanted to make sure kids could get in without having to pay anything,” says Amber Travis, a social studies teacher at Joplin High and the prom coordinator.  “We wanted it not to take a huge burden out of their lives to attend something they deserved.”

People and organizations from Kansas City and Springfield offered dresses, decorations and flowers. It’s one more gesture to a town that has gotten help from people all over the country.

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The Abundant Life Christian Center, a church down the road from the center of town, built bunk beds, outdoor showers, and installed a new kitchen to host a steady stream of volunteers. Since the tornado hit, they have accommodated 6,500 people.

It’s here that a group of 24 high schoolers, too numerous to get a restaurant reservation, decided to have dinner before the prom on a clear warm afternoon at the end of April.  The church did more than just offer a these teenagers a place to gather–they’ve played a role in rebuilding lives of this devastated town.  In one particularly moving case,  Michayla Bjorklund, daughter of the church’s pastors, helped arrange a reunion for a friend that had lost her home and been separated from her mother in the storm’s aftermath.

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“Everyone grieves differently. Everyone processes differently,” said Judy Bjorklund, co-pastor. “Even as a community, some people are still in shock mode.”

But on this day, it was time to celebrate. In a church classroom festooned in tulle and lit with a disco ball, the students shared a meal and a blessing, took photos and prepared for one of their last evenings together as classmates. Then it was off to the main event at the Holiday Inn Convention Center, where an estimated 800 Joplin High students, their dates and the faculty showed off their finery and danced.

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After the prom, the Bjorklunds began preparing  for a summer hosting 250-300 volunteers a night.

“I think we’re progressing along great as a community,” said Bjorklund. “But we’re not to the point where we can walk alone.”

PHOTOS: Last Dance: American Proms by Gillian Laub

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