Pulled by a desire to serve, five members of Eden United Church of Christ in Edwardsville, Ill., embarked on a 500-mile journey to Moore, Okla., on July 3. Joined by 21 other local volunteers, the group spent three days helping those affected by the deadly tornado that swept through the town in May, killing 23 people and injuring nearly 400 others. For Carol Wetzel, a member of Eden UCC, it was an emotional and spiritual opportunity she is grateful she was able to experience.
"I have never done anything like this before," Wetzel said. "But I was sitting out on my deck and thought, 'I am so blessed to be sitting here in this quiet, peaceful place.' And I got to thinking about the people in Oklahoma, and thought, 'I can do something.' I may not be able to be out in the field working hard every day, but I can do something. So I went, and I'm so glad that I did."
Wetzel and the other volunteers were presented the opportunity to volunteer through The Faith Coalition, a group of churches in the Edwardsville area that work together on mission projects like disaster relief and Habitat for Humanity. The group then connected with Operation Blessing International, a nonprofit that provides relief and assistance in 23 countries throughout the world, and continues to have a strong presence in the affected areas of Oklahoma. Through Operation Blessing, the group was provided food and housing at a local church about four miles outside of Moore during their stay, as well as daily instruction and leadership that kept their efforts streamlined and organized.
"We didn't go there just to flop around," Wetzel said. "We knew what we were doing every day."
The volunteers helped with a variety of tasks, such as tearing out mildew-covered walls and floor boards, picking up trash and organizing it for collection, and cutting down fallen tree branches and other debris. Wetzel also spent some of her time preparing meals for the volunteers and keeping their facility clean. When she did make it into the field for a day of hard work, she was shocked by what she encountered.
"It was just devastation," Wetzel said. "The school has already been leveled and there were crosses in place for the children who died there. The houses directly across from and surrounding the school were gone – you saw the driveway and maybe a concrete slab where a house had been, but they were just gone.
"Our thoughts were, 'This is peoples' property – what do you do?'" Wetzel continued. "Do you rebuild on this site and walk out of your door every morning and see where the school was and where those children died? It was just a wrenching experience, really just awful."
Despite the circumstances, Wetzel said the people of Moore were welcoming and appreciative of the groups of people who are volunteering their time and resources to help them get back on their feet. One couple that sticks out in her mind were still waiting to see if their landlord was going to demolish was is left of the house they had been renting, so, until then, they asked volunteers to help them remove all of the debris surrounding it. They didn't want to see any more destruction, Wetzel said, and if they were going to come back there to live, they wanted to start fresh.
"The parts that most of us really treasured were the conversations and the hugs and the love shared with people who had been through this disaster," she said. "They were so welcoming and were so glad we were there to do what we were there to do."