By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
OWENSBORO, Ky. — Patty McDonald had just closed on her townhouse in Illinois and planned to spend the holidays with family and train to walk the Camino, when she heard the news about the tornadoes that devastated western Kentucky Dec. 10.
McDonald, who retired from the banking industry, has volunteered in national and international disaster relief for years. So her first thought was to reach out to Susan Montalvo-Gesser, director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro.
She explained to Montalvo-Gesser that other Catholic Charities offices around the country could vouch for her and that she was happy to do all of the diocese’s required background checks and training required for volunteers.
Plus, unlike many messages Catholic Charities has received from those wanting to travel out and volunteer, McDonald didn’t ask to be at ground zero of the tornadoes. The disaster recovery was in far too early of the process to even consider bringing untrained volunteers into the disaster zones.
More than 30 tornadoes were reported across Kentucky and several other states late Dec. 10 and early Dec. 11, killing dozens of people and leaving a trail of devastation. For Kentucky, it was the worst tornado outbreak in the state’s history.
McDonald said she was happy to simply answer the phones. So Montalvo-Gesser told McDonald she could come.
After her holiday time with family, McDonald arrived in Kentucky Dec. 28 and stayed a month.
“It’s a really remarkable group of people and a remarkable diocese,” McDonald told The Western Kentucky Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. “They were confronted with a catastrophic event and didn’t throw their hands up. … (Instead they said) ‘How can we help and bring Christ to these people?’ ”
Her task was filling in the areas that Miguel Quintanilla, Catholic Charities’ paralegal, usually addressed, such as answering phone calls for assistance. She also monitored the email inbox.
Quintanilla had been swamped with extra tornado recovery work — like the rest of the Catholic Charities staff — so the new volunteer provided welcome support.
“The first three weeks were very busy,” said McDonald. She was set up at a desk in the McRaith Catholic Center, the diocese’s central offices, with her own temporary phone extension so the switchboard could transfer calls directly to her.
McDonald had never been to western Kentucky before coming to volunteer, but said her nephew had attended the University of Kentucky. She had spent a lot of time in the Lexington area when he was a student, so she has a soft spot for the Bluegrass State.
“I did a bit of research and discovered that Owensboro is the fourth largest city in the state!” she said. “It’s a large swath of land, but you get to know it.”
McDonald volunteered with the recovery efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and has volunteered with numerous nonprofits throughout her life.
“I am taken with the whole idea of volunteer work,” she said, adding that somehow she has “always volunteered.”
But she has a particularly soft spot for the ministry of Catholic Charities.
“Catholic Charities will be the sought-after beacon when the lights go out,” she said.
McDonald also appreciated the ecumenical and communal efforts to aid tornado recovery.
“Owensboro Christian Church has been amazing as a partner,” she said, praising “some of those opportunities for that ecumenical outreach. Human need is human need, regardless of who you are.”
Her plan is still to continue training to walk El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, which she said she will do in memory of her husband, Greg, and her sister, Julie.