I remember the Greensburg city water tower driving into Kansas for the 2008 New York Says Thank You annual “barn-raising” trip; it overlooked the landscape as an unmistakable monument amid the rubble and destruction left behind by an EF-5 tornado that ravaged the city one year before. Looking out the window after the past hour of driving past the grey and brown debris of a once-strong community brought to its knees, the tower, unassuming as it was, caught my eye; written across the middle of the tower in forest green was the name, “GREENSBURG,” the first splash of color after hours of driving. I became fixated on the green text as something to look to, a symbol that Greensburg, beaten and bruised as it was, would find a way to move forward. It was a challenge—even for my 7-year-old imagination and youthful optimism—to picture how anyone could overcome the tragedy which took place there, but seeing the tower from my backseat car window gave me the faintest feeling of hope that Greensburg would always be defined by its community, not the tornado, and would come back even stronger than it was.
The previous year in 2007, we were on a New York Says Thank You trip in Groesbeck, Texas rebuilding the Vincent family’s home, which had been destroyed in a tornado. There, we first encountered Groesbeck Rebuilds America, a local community-based organization dedicated to disaster relief and rebuilding. As we got to work on the house, they became an essential partner: volunteers would come in their neon green shirts to help rebuild from the early morning well into the night, and they would call on their friends from the local community to join in our barn-raising. One day as I watched volunteers from all around the country figuring out how to lift a wall together, I was approached by a woman from Groesbeck Rebuilds America who invited me to sit down and paint with her. Their organization, up until this point, would host small painting events, enabling kids to meaningfully involve themselves in brightening up the community. When New York Says Thank You came to town, my dad (Jeff Parness, founder of New York Says Thank You) had the idea to cut small wooden stars to paint on with inspirational messages to bring a sense of community and HOPE to survivors of the tornado. From this simple idea, Stars of HOPE was born.
I was six years old at the time—I could hit a nail but I couldn’t lift a wall, much less get on the roof to secure cross beams—but I could come up with something to paint. I can’t remember what I painted myself, or if I left a message on it, but I remember what the little boy next to me, no older than I was, painted: a yellow star with bright blue and red polka dots. I remember thinking it looked nice and that I wanted to make a star like his.
Driving through Greensburg, Kansas, I had never seen a city so lacking in color. The rubble scattered across the landscape formed fields of grey and black and brown—darkness.
Approaching the build site for the first time, all I could think about was the green text across the water tower; I wondered how I could share that splash of color and all that it meant for me with the people around me. Fortunately, that was the first year we had a dedicated Stars of HOPE painting station at the foot of the build site. I sat down that very first day and painted a star: bright blue with red and white stars, and in green paint across the middle, the word “LOVE.”
Every barn-raising trip from then on, more and more people from all different backgrounds sat down together to paint, sharing their own messages of HOPE and inspiration. One volunteer in Little Sioux, Iowa, who lost his onion farm to a tornado, painted a photo of his onions on a star with the words, “the onions will grow again!” A few years later, in Ellijay, Georgia, one volunteer made a board to count the number of stars painted with the ultimate goal of 3,000 stars. I couldn’t imagine anyone painting that many stars when I heard the number for the first time, but I remember the crowd that cheered and laughed and cried and danced together when the 3,000th star was marked off.
Thinking back on Stars of HOPE, how it started from a simple idea to engage the community and has since grown into such an enormous entity with stars and painting events around the globe, I remember all the people I sat down with, people I otherwise would have never met, to share our hopes and dreams with each other and with the world through our paintings. But most of all, I remember that all it takes is one splash of color, one beacon of HOPE, to brighten up even the darkest of places.