World Hope team helps tornado victims in Alabama
By Dave Cowger
For the Salisbury Post Wednesday, April 27, 2011, was a day consumed by EF4 and EF5 tornados barreling through the South, reducing immaculate lawns and landscape to what amounted to nothing more than dry, dusty, barren land. That day has come to be known as the deadliest tornado outbreak since 1932.
Driving to areas west of Birmingham, Alabama and seeing the damage first-hand made me wonder what kind of effect the storm had, not only on the families who endured the tornado’s wrath, but also those who survived, untouched. I wondered what people were thinking as the tornado approached, heading straight for them. I wondered, with such widespread wreckage, could I help and would my help make a difference at all?
On June 20, the Alabama Care Team from World Hope Worship Center — 14 adults and youth, from 15 to 58 years of age — loaded into vans and made the nine-hour trip to join me in Birmingham. The plan was to serve wherever help was needed: clearing debris from homesites, organizing food pantries and supplies, building storage shelving for a relief center, talking to and praying with the families in Pleasant Grove and Cordova.
“I could not wait to see what I could do to help and how God would use me to shine some light for those affected by the tornado, said East Rowan student Bethany Vodochodsky in her journal.
When the team first arrived in Pleasant Grove, we drove through the neighborhoods. Some remained beautiful and lush, homes intact, yards mowed. However, the vast majority of the homes were missing roofs or walls; some foundations were missing the homes themselves.
Standing on a concrete slab, Salisbury High student Andrew McLendon said, “It’s just so hard. I know we’re in a neighborhood. But I don’t see any houses.”
That evening, back at our base camp (Westmont Baptist Church, Pleasant Grove), college student Erica Corl wrote, “You can never begin to visualize or imagine the devastation until you are there.”
On the second day the group split up, with the ladies going to the Relief Center at Freewill Baptist in Cordova, to help with sorting and organizing supplies. “Every family that came into the pantry was so grateful, but yet you could see the pain in their faces,” recalls Donna Loflin, home health nurse.
The men went to homesites to assist with clean-up. Kevin Vodochodsky, a local college student, remembers, “The one memory that will always stick out in my mind is the first worksite. The owners of the home that used to stand there were the Stewarts. The mother, father and young son were thrown 75 yards from their home by the tornado, and they survived. … where their house once stood lay debris consisting of sticks, glass, bricks, stones, magazines, a 30gb iPod, golf balls, sea shells, a bucket, and countless objects that were once of value.
“One item in particular stood out to me. A book. This book looked as if it had been through a fire. The pages were torn, a coffee-stained color, and ripped on the ends. The title of the book was ‘It Can’t Happen Here.’ The title alone shook me. I wanted to stop and cry…. But, work needed to be done. Charles McLendon reminded me of the message that Pastor Dave spoke before our trip to Alabama, how we are not promised ‘tomorrow.’”
On another day, the Care Team went door-to-door in Pleasant Grove. Not to the homes that were in ruins but, on this day, to the homes that were spared. There, the team handed out wooden cross keychains. On each the tag read, “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9” The Care Team wasn’t there to solicit donations or to ask for volunteers. Our purpose was to offer prayer for their needs and concerns, and to bring a little joy into the lives of the survivors.
Daizee Paxton, 15, remembers, “The group I was in came to a house where an older lady lived. I was about to start crying when she answered the door because she looked frail and such. When she answered the door she said, ‘Oh, what’s this? Someone to brighten my day?’ “ Bethany Vodochodsky, also 15, recalls, “As she held that cross in her hand, she began to cry. And then she looked up at us and said that this is one of the kindest things that she has seen anyone do!”
We met many amazing people in Alabama. Some who experienced survivor’s remorse but understood the randomness of the storm. Some who told their first-hand accounts of huddling together — family members packed tightly — then lifted up their heads after the roar had ended to see … not their ceiling, but the sky. All gained a strength beyond understanding.
We met Tammy, whose home was split in half through the foundation and was forced to live with family, and yet she volunteered to oversee the food pantry. We met a number of families whose homes were unscathed. We met an elderly lady who lived on a fixed income of only $40 per week. The people came from all walks of life and banded together to recreate their community. They prepared food and provided supplies as needed. They worked together to clear property. Friendship. Camaraderie. A new unity.
Our group left Alabama on Friday, after unloading the semi-truck at Saint Patrick Catholic Church, Birmingham — supplies generously donated by the Salisbury/Rowan County community over the previous month. World Hope member Richard Yates had taken time off work to drive the 20-hour round trip to deliver these supplies. We were thrilled to be able to bless them with an abundance of shoes (Rack Room and Crocs), bottled water, clothing, cleaning supplies, diapers and wipes, dental supplies and ice chests/coolers.
Returning home was bittersweet. We were glad to be in our own homes, with our loved ones. Safe. Secure. But all the while we were still thinking about the overwhelming amount of work left undone. Did 16 people from Salisbury, North Carolina really make a difference? I know the trip made a difference in us.
Kevin Boyle, a young father, updated his status on Facebook that day: “I just returned from a week in Alabama helping with the tornado relief. My whole outlook on life has been changed.”
Victor Jenrette, the oldest member of our team and a Vietnam veteran, wrote, “WHWC Care Team: Never in my life have I been so proud of a group of people. My heart cries for the tornado victims in Alabama and my soul rejoices over the victory being won there.”
Sheila Deal, mother of two, wrote on Facebook, “Great to be home, but my heart and mind just keep thinking about all the people in Alabama, almost does not feel right. …Very blessed I could go… stepping out in faith opens big doors for God.”
Melissa Boyle, another young mother, remembers, “Coming home and looking back over this past week has been a huge adjustment. I long to be back in Alabama to help where it is still needed. …If this one experience can bring up so many feelings in me, I can’t wait to see what else God has in store.”
Stephanie Lippard, a mother of two sons, writes: “When I went to Alabama, I had the expectation of ministering to the needs of others. I had hoped to share my experience of losing our baby boy, Nathan, and telling others that I know what it’s like to lose a loved one. But God had another plan for me… He taught me that I am still so very blessed to have two sons at home and a wonderful husband who loves me. I even had a home to go back to when I left Alabama. Some lost everything, and God showed me that serving others is what we’re here for. Even in our own suffering, God can use us to bless others, and in return, we learn valuable lessons.
Charity Vodochodsky, a high school student, journaled, “Beauty Beyond Destruction. I thought of this the first day we came to Alabama and it stuck with me every day after. We were standing on the foundation where a house used to be and there was a sunset in the background. … Through all the rubble, it seemed as if there was a sense of hope just beyond all the devastation. It brought reassurance to me to see that God has a plan for everything…. My overall experience was life- and heart- changing…. I can’t wait to go back.”
And we will be going back.
Two Care Teams will be taking the trip to Alabama in August. We invite you to join us: August 10 – 14 (a Work Trip, to help clean up homesites, work on rebuilding and painting) and August 15 – 19 (a needs-based trip: whatever they need, we will do). If you are interested in donating financially for supplies that will be purchased on site, or if you would like to join one of these teams, please contact our church office at 704-636-9159 or visit us at World Hope Worship Center, 2203 Mooresville Road, Salisbury, no later than Wednesday, August 3.
Churches and businesses who partnered with us to make an impact in Alabama were Trinity Wesleyan Church, China Grove Church of God, High Rock Church, Gays Chapel United Methodist, Cornerstone Church, Bernhardt Hardware, Diamond Water (Charlotte), Thompson Printing, Granite Knitwear, and Yates Trucking. Also, we are truly grateful for the donation of dental supplies, given by: Dr. Murphy, Dr. Fortner, and Dest Family Dentistry — all of Salisbury; and Dr. Monroe — of Charlotte.
Thank you, to all the individuals who donated finances, ice chests/coolers, or other supplies. Always remember that you have touched countless families. Our prayer for you is that you know God’s blessing, as you have blessed others.
It was an honor for the Care Team from World Hope to partner with so many amazing churches, businesses, and individuals, and represent Salisbury and Rowan County. We look forward to more opportunities to reach out, together, with God’s love – locally, in Alabama, and other locations as needed. We live in a great city!
David Cowger is pastor of World Hope Worship Center.