To Otaiba, the decision was simple: Give the hospital $5 million to build a 12-bed NICU.
“It was a huge shot in the arm,” said Gary Pulsipher, the hospital’s chief executive. “Their message to us — ‘Even though you’ve been through this awful event, we want to encourage you to come back stronger’ — was so inspiring.”
Because the rebuilt hospital will not open until 2015, the embassy also sought out a project that would yield a more immediate impact. The school system was an obvious target. If temporary schools did not open by the end of summer — in just three months — city officials worried that many families would move away. School administrators assumed they would be able to find interim structures in time, but they weren’t sure what to do about textbooks.
Then the embassy called.
When development director Kimberly Vann told her boss, Superintendent C.J. Huff, that the UAE government was willing to donate $1 million for laptops, he thought it was a joke.
“Back then, we were getting a lot of calls from people willing to help — but nothing like this,” Huff recalled. “I thought somebody was pranking us.”
The UAE gift came in two parts: $500,000 upfront and another $500,000 as a matching grant. If the school system could raise an additional $500,000, it would have a total of $1.5 million, bringing it very close to the price tag for 2,200 laptops, the attendant software and other equipment required to manage the project.
In the end, Huff’s staff did not have to pound the streets for money to meet the UAE’s challenge. Checks started arriving at his office, from companies and organizations with no connection to Joplin, sparked by news of the UAE matching grant.
The decision to accept the UAE money prompted an angry response from a few residents, and it sparked rants from some conservative radio commentators — one of them, Debbie Schlussel, accused the school system of taking “Islamic blood money” — but Huff stood firm. “I can live with the hate mail,” he said. “It’s the right thing for the kids.”
The laptops have transformed high school. Instead of sitting in rows of front-facing desks, listening to teachers present lessons, students spend their classes clustered together in groups, usually of five or six, their eyes fixed on the screens of their white laptops. Much of their instruction comes from viewing videos and interactive presentations copied from the Internet and stored on the school’s data server.
On a recent morning in an 11th-grade social studies class, the day’s lesson — about World War II — involved students watching a lecture that a high school teacher from another state had recorded and posted to YouTube. The teacher, Amber Travis, who lost six years of lesson plans in the tornado, said she learned about the YouTube video after posting a query to other teachers on Twitter.
In hallway conversations, students said they are happy to have the computers, but many of them did not know who provided the money to buy them. Unlike donations to other nations from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which often are emblazoned with stickers, there is nothing on the laptops that mentions the UAE.
But city leaders know. So do state officials and Missouri’s congressional delegation. Sen. Roy Blunt (R), who had opposed the Dubai firm’s ports deal in 2006, joined Otaiba on a trip to Joplin last May and expressed appreciation for the UAE’s financial contributions.
Huff said he sees no shame in accepting foreign aid to help his students. “Part of being a good neighbor is not just knowing how to give, but also how to receive,” he said. “It would be great if we had the money to pay for the laptops ourselves. But we didn’t. Sometimes you have to be willing to put pride in your pocket and accept gifts.”