Cunningham Park

Helicopter Park is what we used to call it, about a decade ago.


I’d bring my oldest two girls here to let them jump, slide, swing, and climb on the brightly-colored playground equipment under the shade of the many tall trees in this park.


If we were lucky – and we often were – we’d hear it: a distant whirring, growing closer and louder by the minute until we saw the source of the sound hovering above the treeline, pausing for a moment as if winking at us before it whisked itself away.


cunningham pre 1

Seeing this flying object was a highly anticipated event whenever we came here, and we’d all stop whatever we were doing just to watch it. This magical machine was the St. John’s medical helicopter which was housed at the hospital’s helipad right across the street from one of our favorite places in Joplin: Cunningham Park.


cunningham pre 2So many leaves on the ground from so many trees!


Unfortunately, what my girls and I knew as Helicopter Park was destroyed by the EF5 tornado that roared through Joplin on May 22, 2011. All of those beautiful shade trees were transformed into matchsticks, tossed with mangled playground equipment, then lumped into piles of debris.


But it didn’t take long for the people of our city, working alongside thousands of volunteers from all over the country and all over the world, to clean up the twisted bits of our former buildings and parks, and to create fresh spaces where we could form new memories. The result was a touching tribute, not only to the past, but to the ever-present power of the human spirit.


My kids and I weren’t the only ones who missed playing at Cunningham Park in the months after the tornado; lots of people were hard-pressed to find a space in Joplin where their kids could run and play with no worries.


Thanks to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, that all changed. The production, which built seven homes a few blocks from the park, also took on the task of building a play area and basketball court at Cunningham Park, introducing these features to the public in October 2011.


cunningham boomtown

This wooden play area is made to look like Joplin in its booming mining days. I like it because it feels like a miniature movie set from an old Western.


cunningham tall playground

For kids who crave more height and thrills, there’s a three-story modern plastic playground set that has been added on the north side of the park.


cunningham old playgroundThe former playground today.


cunningham post tornadoThe former playground after the tornado.

In the center of the park, in the space that once contained the playground equipment that my kids climbed on back in the Helicopter Park days, there’s now a serene koi pond on the north side and a pond with a waterfall on the south side, with a bridge separating the two.


cunningham koi

This is the reflecting pond, which honors the lives of the children lost in the tornado.


Walking southeast from this area is the green space where my kids would once excitedly run from me in an effort to get me to chase them. Most of this area is still open, but there are a few new fixtures that are honor the lives lost in the tornado.


cunningham plaqueThis plaque lists the names of the 161 citizens who perished on May 22.

cunningham fountain

Dedicated on November 22, 2011, the “Proclamation of Restoration” fountain is a replica of the original one which stood at Cunningham Park, the first city park in Joplin, and it reads: To the City of Joplin and the “Seasoning of Lives” lost during and from the aftermath of the May 22 tornado.


The north part of the park features a tribute to the volunteers who flocked to Joplin to help our city in those months after the storm. This is the Volunteer Tribute and Children’s Memorial, designed and built by architecture students from Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.


cunningham steel band

This stainless steel band represents the “The Miracle of the Human Spirit” wristbands that many people wore during the recovery process.


The four circles of the tribute represent Rescue, Recovery, Demolition and Rebirth, and pieces of debris form mosaics in the walls of the circles.


cunnningham debris mosaic 1

In the center of the circles is a mosaic that reflects the stories about the “Butterfly People” that children told after the storm.


cunningham butterfly mosaic

To the north of this area, just past the boundaries of the original park, is the Butterfly Garden and Overlook. What I think is so cool about this area is the “penciled” outlines of the former homes that stood at that spot, especially the Carl Owen house, which was built in 1911 (click here to see what it looked like).


cunningham penciled

Sometimes while my kids were playing, I’d look at that house with its unusual row of windows on the upper floor, and I’d wonder what exactly the upstairs was used for. I’d like to think that it was a huge dance studio or a writing room that overlooked the park (how dreamy would that be?).


cunningham flowers wall outline

Today, you can walk through the skeleton of the house and learn facts about the tornado and the butterfly garden from the series of plaques that are placed inside of it.


cunningham strong fountain

There are several places in the garden where you can sit down and reflect, or simply watch the many butterflies alight on the many blooms that were planted there just for them.


cunningham waterwall

There’s a cozy spot under a pavilion that faces the water wall, a 38-segment water feature which represents the number of minutes that the tornado was on the ground. There’s a void in the water wall at the seventh minute, which is when Cunningham Park was struck.


While I miss those times when my girls were little and I’d take them to Helicopter Park, I embrace the new features of this transformed park and appreciate the symbolism of every one of them.


Now, instead of a helicopter rising above the treeline, I envision a phoenix rising from the rubble.


cunningham rosesCunningham Park is located at 26th Street and Maiden Lane.


To read more about my adventures in the area, visit