By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor
Catholics around the Archdiocese of Louisville — spared the devastating effects of the March 2 tornadoes — have turned to helping people affected by the storms.
Catholic Charities of Louisville has received donations totalling $22,096 (as of March 13) from individual donors, one parish and one school. Parishes were to have a special collection last Sunday to benefit storm victims, but many of those donations have not yet been forwarded to Catholic Charities, the agency said.
St. Gabriel Church’s youth group was among the first volunteers to arrive in Eastern Kentucky on March 3. They travelled there to help Hand in Hand Ministries with another project, unaware of the devastation wrought by storms the day before.
They ended up spending a day in Auxier, Ky., creating care packages — with food and hygiene products from Hand in Hand’s pantry — for people affected by the storms. The Louisville-based Hand in Hand, a non-profit founded by parishioners in local parishes, is helping storm victims in Salyers-ville, West Liberty and several smaller communities in the area, including Riceville, Denver and Tomahawk, Ky.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth sent a crew of about a dozen workers from its volunteer program to Southern Indiana a few days after the tornado outbreaks just 25 or so miles north of Louisville. The sisters and lay volunteers have spent several days — working alongside volunteers from around the region —sorting and clearing debris from people’s homes, salvaging whatever might be of value to homeowners.
Last Friday, March 9, they spent the day picking through the remains of a home owned by Joanne Murphy, an elderly woman who, according to volunteers assigned to help clear her property, emerged from her home unharmed on the day of the storm and was said to be resting at a shelter last Friday.
Her escape seems miraculous in light of her nearly-demolished home. Only about half of its walls were left standing, yet at the center of the house, teacups and a few plates in the kitchen sat untouched in a cupboard. Otherwise, the home was ransacked by the tornado, leaving debris once inside hanging from the branches of nearby wind-stripped trees.
In the yard, a few still-recognizable items included a framed and signed photograph for which the homeowner had won an award. A card on the back of the photo shows a picture of the homeowner and an artist’s statement explaining that she is an award-winning photographer who worked in Texas. It also says she’s a Vietnam War veteran. Her American flag — now tattered — still flew in front of the house when the sisters arrived Friday mid-morning.
“I can hardly keep from crying,” said Butch Cecil, a volunteer with the sisters who helped to clear Murphy’s property. “To think, there was a woman living here and she’s lost everything she had.”
The sisters and lay volunteers — many of whom have experience from other relief efforts — had several aims, according to Sister Luke Boiarski, director of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Volunteer Program.
“We’re trying to retrieve personal property — photos — the things that are important, really,” she said, taking a break from her work. They also aim to accompany those affected by disasters, she said. “We always connect with the families. I like working with the families, reaching out to them and letting them know they’re not alone.”
Their other aim is to do the work at hand: clearing debris so that rebuilding can begin.
It was hard work made more difficult last Friday by forceful winds that whipped up particles from the piles of debris that were scattered about a muddy field. Volunteers wore gloves, and some wore masks as they sorted metal, wood, shingles, siding and plastic into piles along the side of the road. From the depths of the piles they pulled out old-fashioned children’s toys, a pair of white leather baby booties and photographs.
Sister Angela Hicks, 76, threw herself into the work with energy that belied her age. She said she assisted with relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and has taken part in service trips to Appalachia. She believes disasters such as this “bring out the best in people.”
Two days before, she noted, the Sisters’ crew helped another family to clear debris from their yard. The family — Charlie and Chris Trouncin — worked alongside them.
“They were right there with us,” she said as she carried an armful of debris to the roadside piles. “And that guy put up a sign that said, ‘God is still good.’ I marvel at them. Every person we have spoken to says they are grateful.
“They’re not looking at what’s been taken away from them — their house, their car, their family members,” she added.
Some of the volunteers with the SCNs were able to do heavy lifting and run a chainsaw. Others did smaller jobs — anything they could do to help.
Alida Coughlin, a lay volunteer with the sisters, said, “You do your two-cents worth and hope it helps.”
“I think the people who are suffering like this are helped by your very presence. It matters that you’re there,” she said, adding, “This could have been me.”