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Helping others while in the midst of your own disaster

August 10, 2011

A volunteer in a blue shirt at a site affected by severe storm damage.

Presbyterians from near and far have rallied to the cause, to provide a lending hand in Joplin, Mo. —Photos by Dennis and Phyllis Wizenreid

Joplin, Mo.

The devastation left in the wake of scores of spring tornadoes and storms that swept through the country has been astonishing, and the deadliest, which hit Joplin, Mo., on May 22, created unspeakable trauma.

“It ripped through a mile and a half wide for six or seven miles and took down everything,” said Missouri resident Kathy Morriss, co-chair of disaster assistance for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s John Calvin Presbytery. “It’s a catastrophe that I never thought I would see.”

The Washington Post reported that the Joplin tornado was the single deadliest tornado since officials began keeping records in 1950. The twister destroyed a third of the town, and more than 150 people perished as a result. Thousands have signed up for housing help, and mounds of debris remains.

Volunteers at a site affected by severe storms.

More than 50 people of different ages from 19 different churches in the John Calvin Presbytery, signed up to volunteer with the cleanup in Joplin, Mo.

Yet in the midst of it all, the community is being surrounded by volunteers, including those from the PC(USA). Throngs of Presbyterians from near and far have rallied to the cause, and many more are still coming, local leaders say.

The response “was really sort of unbelievable,” said Pam George, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Joplin, who is handling the scheduling of volunteers coming to help. Immediately after the tornado, the church began receiving calls from people wanting to come, she said.

The church has welcomed more than 100 volunteers from across the states, and booking continues, said the facilities coordinator. “I have already got somebody scheduled for next July,” George said.

John Robinson, the associate for national response for the PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, said PDA has sent several teams to Joplin and will continue to equip and support the community and incoming volunteers for the long haul.

“We will be doing long-term recovery there,” he said, adding that PDA belongs to National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. “We (PDA) are frequently the last one to leave the field.”

Recently PDA held a consultation with 17 presbyteries from that area to look at how to do long-term recovery, Robinson said. The storms this spring were “unprecedented,” so hosting a meeting such as this was essential, he added.

Volunteers in the midst of an area affected by storms in Joplin, Mo.

Volunteers surround an area affected by severe storms in Joplin, Mo.

Kathy Morriss said on July 20 that her presbytery was wrapping up the first of two scheduled volunteer trips to Joplin to help with the cleanup. For this first three-day trip, more than 50 people of different ages from 19 different churches signed up to go, she said.

 “I think that’s incredible,” said Morriss, who chairs the presbytery’s disaster effort with her husband, Todd. “We had one couple in their ’80s.”

She said their volunteers worked with AmeriCorps at one of its three operations – in the field removing debris, at a distribution site, and at a call center.

“The majority of our group does go out to the field and work,” Morriss said. “What we did today was demolish a house that an older couple was living in.”

Ultimately the work makes the volunteers “very aware of how rewarding it is to help people who need help,” she said. “You know someone is going to benefit from that work.”

For information on how to contribute to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, please visit their website.

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