Joplin, Missouri (CNN) – On the eve of the one year anniversary of the tornado that ripped apart the southern Missouri town of Joplin, Missouri, killing 161 residents and injuring 900 others, President Barack Obama told graduating high school seniors they and their town serve as an inspiration.
"We can define our own lives not by what happens to us, but by how we respond. We can choose to carry on. We can choose to make a difference in the world," the president told the 2012 graduating class at Joplin High School. "Of all that’s come from this tragedy, let this be the central lesson that guides us. Let it be the lesson that sustains through whatever challenges lie ahead.”
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Obama traveled to Joplin Monday after wrapping up the two-day NATO summit in Chicago and a weekend of talks with world leaders at the G-8 meeting at Camp David.
It was one year ago Tuesday that an EF-5 tornado, the deadliest on the measurement scale, tore through Joplin, just after a graduation ceremony for the Joplin High School class of 2011.
Two students from the town's only high school were among those killed and the 220-mile per hour winds demolished one third of the town.
Yet on Monday night Obama told the graduates it was what happened in the days following the tragedy that should be remembered.
"You’ll remember that in a town of 50,000 people, nearly 50,000 more came to help in the weeks after the tornado – perfect strangers who’ve never met you, and didn't ask for anything in return,” the president said.
Obama visited Joplin in the days after the tornado to witness the destruction firsthand and participate in a memorial service for those killed and injured.
In the year since the disaster destroyed their high school along with some 8,000 homes and businesses, students in Joplin have been attending classes in part of a local mall.
The school district is set to break ground on four new schools, including a new high school and technology complex to be rebuilt near the site of the destroyed high school.
Obama noted the resilience of the community as evident in the businesses along the bustling Range Line Road, where more than half of those destroyed have been rebuilt.
Last year reporters saw what appeared like a war zone along the Range Line with trees uprooted and trucks tossed about like toys, and there are still reminders of the devastation this community weathered. Billboard style signs advertise "safe house" and "storm shelters.”
A press pool report noted the presidential motorcade passed a temporary trailer complex used to house residents who lost their homes in the tornado. The report said several hundred of those residents came out to wave at the passing motorcade.
But Obama reminded the graduates it is that resilience that they should take with them.
"Some of life’s strongest bonds are the ones we forge when everything around us seems broken,” he said.
"[M]y deepest hope for all of you is that as you begin this new chapter in your life, you'll bring that spirit of Joplin to every place you travel, to everything you do,” Obama said. “You can serve as a reminder that we’re not meant to walk this road alone; that we’re not expected to face down adversity by ourselves. We need God; we need each other. We’re important to each other. We’re stronger together than we are on our own."