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Stockton: Learning through helping

Stockton tornado damageAlthough not as newsworthy as helping clear away the debris of a tornado that struck Stockton, Missouri, there is much volunteer work going on behind the scenes to help the people of that community to return to a normal life after their homes were destroyed.

It was working as such a volunteer that I learned a lot about the camaraderie that has occurred in that community. I talked with a survivor, met the volunteers who came to help from all over the country and learned just how much goes on behind the scenes to help a community up off its knees.

Stockton squareIt was a bright sunny day as three members of Schweitzer Methodist Church drove to Stockton to help. I had visited the town numerous times in the 1960s during the planning and construction of Stockton Dam. Even having seen the media coverage of the tornado I was not ready for the sight that greeted me as we approached on Highway 32 from the east. The tornado pretty much followed the highway as it weaved its path of destruction through Stockton. There was no Stockton as I had known it, only piles of rubble and denuded trees. How could so many have survived with their lives from this disaster?

The three of us after checking in with the United Methodist Christian Relief representative were assigned to the Emergency Distribution Center operated by the Salvation Army and the Emergency Distribution CenterSeven Day Adventists just to northwest of the area of destruction. The Center is like a giant department store making available to victims such necessities of life as food, clothing, furniture, cleaning products, and many other items we all take for granted in our daily life. The agencies were lucky to have available for their purpose a large building which had once been a garment manufacturing plant, complete with floor to ceiling shelves.

Our job: sorting through the tons of clothing that had been donated from around the country to resupply families who lost everything in the terrible storm. A day's work made only a small dent in the massive sorting and boxing Clothing sortingchore. In another part of the large distribution site other volunteers were laying out the clothing on display tables.

Some of the volunteers were local people but many more had come in from all over the country to help out. Georgette, who supervised the clothing area, was from Canada. She is a perennial volunteer who, along with her husband, goes from one disaster to another helping those in need. Other volunteers came from throughout the Midwest.

Among the volunteers was a young man named Jody who had been pressed into the rather mundane task for moving paper goods from large supply boxes to the shelves where they would be accessible. Over a bologna sandwich, Jody talked about his experience with the tornado. He said the tornado did some damage to his house but the family could still live in it. Where was he when the tornado came? "I was sitting on a sofa in the basement," he said. Did it make a lot of noise? "It sound just like they say, just like a freight train." It was apparent from talking with Jody that he had perhaps a learning disability which kept him from understanding some things. It was also apparent that he had no trouble understanding and remembering what happened on that fateful May evening.

Damaged houseMore detailed information about what had happened and was happening in Stockton in the past few weeks came from Kenny, an older man who had lived in the community for the past 27 years. He lived at the southwest edge of Stockton and waited out the tornado in the basement of a neighbor's house. It took the top off his house. Kenny surmises that the tornado may have still not taken completely to ground or both houses would be gone. "The devastation was so great in the area," Kenny said, "that all I could do the next day was cry."

It didn't take long for the shock to wear off, however, and Kenny started figuring out how to survive. He said he was lucky to find a place south of town that was for rent. "There just aren't many places in the area for rent and the town's only motel was also destroyed." With the help of friends, neighbors, and family he started picking up the debris and deciding where to go from there. Luckily, Kenny says, the insurance will cover the cost of getting the house back into livable condition and maybe even restoring it.

Tornado rubble in city park"Stockton is a great little place," Kenny said, "and we all pull together for each other in this situation." The friendliness of the town played a big role in his resettling here to get away from the turmoil of Kansas City .

This survivor figured he'd get along all right but he was worried about other senior citizens in town since the senior citizen center was also destroyed by the tornado. "A lot of these people depend upon Meals On Wheels which operated out of the center," Kenny said. "I don't know what's going to happen to them."

Munching on a homemade cookie, which he knows is always available at the Distribution Center, Kenny had good words for the Red Cross in this disaster. "No one better bad-mouth the Red Cross to me," he said. "They were there when we needed help most. I can't say enough good about them." It was obvious that the folks at the Distribution Center were also high on Kenny's list. It was obvious that he considered the place a second home - where a fellow could always get something to eat - and was grateful for the items they were providing that helped people get back Methodist churchon their feet.

Although it is not possible to make conclusions based on a brief encounter but it seemed to me that the city of Stockton and its residents, with a little help from its friends, was going to get back on their feet in the very near future.

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