Back to school for students in Joplin

JOPLIN, Mo. - There were plenty of hugs, a few tears, and a lot of new outfits. The first day of school is a rite of passage, but in Joplin it's the biggest benchmark so far in the long road to recovery.

"The first time we drove through there, it just sucks all the air out of you," Susan Stewart tells CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers." "It's just so unbelievably devastating. It was just terrible."

PICTURES: CBS News on the ground in Joplin

Seamstress Susan Stewart lives 25 miles away in Pittsburg, Kansas, and wanted to help.

"I don't have a chainsaw and I don't know how to drive a bulldozer and I can't put a new roof on," Stewart says. "Two days after the tornado it just struck me that I always had a new dress for the first day of school. So I asked ladies to make garments, it's just the right thing to do."

How to help Joplin tornado victims

She reached out online to the sewing community. In less than three months, she got more than 1,400 hand sewn outifts from all across the country.

Project First Day (Sewing group)

"Once you've seen that kind of devastation, you go 'oh my God, that's awful. How could anybody go through that," says San Jose's Cindy Smith. "So it was like, 'well, this is something I can do to give back,' and it gave me a chance to sew for little girls."

Last night, Smith's outfit was scooped up by Cidney Wheat. This morning, the fifth-grader wore it for the start of the school year.

Wheat says it makes her feel "really good that somebody would make something like this that's pretty."

Exactly what Susan Stewart had hoped. "I wanted to make a lot of little girls feel like princesses on that first day of school. This isn't just something to cover your bodies, this is something to feed your souls."

It's cross country kindness that's helping to stitch the fabric of this community back together.