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Church group gives aid to tornado-ravaged
Volunteer Bobby Nance carries lumber while working on a construction project on the Shawnee Indian Reservation near Moore, Okla. A group of 26 volunteers from Mayo Christian Church in Spencer traveled to Moore with the intent to help victims of two tornadoes that hit the area in May. When they arrived, they found that they were not needed — until they traveled to the reservation about 30 miles away and found it devastated. (Contributed photo)
Twenty-six people rode for 21 straight hours to a tornado-ravaged area in Oklahoma only to be told there was nothing for them to do. So the group from Mayo Christian Church in Spencer had to find their own mission work.
What they discovered was a community that had been completely ignored in the otherwise full-throttle recuperation efforts following the May 20 and 31 twisters, according to Pastor Curt Ashley, 31.
It was the Shawnee Indian Reservation, which did not qualify for government assistance because it is on private land, according to Ashley and an article in the Oklahoman newspaper.
Members of the Mayo Christian group spent two weeks preparing for their trip, and brought $26,000 with them to donate to people who needed help. Before they left, they were assured by contacts in Olkahoma there would be tasks they could do.
When they showed up near Moore, Okla., during the second week of June, the host church “said they didn’t have any work for us,” said Ashley, who led the group. “We had to drive around and look” for ways to help people.
They were expecting to be needed in the town of Moore, which made national news for the devastation it experienced. However, “The news doesn’t show you that Moore is an upscale neighborhood,” Ashley said. “They all have the resources to do their own stuff. They have insurance and all this paid help in” taking care of repairs.
The Mayo group got back to the host church that night without having found any way to be useful. Someone suggested they go to the Shawnee Indian Reservation about 30 miles away.
A rare EF5 tornado tore through Moore on May 20, killing 24 people and demolishing schools and houses. A second EF5 tornado hit the El Reno area May 31.
The devastation left by those two tornadoes overshadowed the impact of a tornado that went through the Shawnee reservation on May 19. Eight of the community’s 87 homes were ruined, and two people died in the storm. The people endured weeks with no running water and with debris piled high.
“Third-world country is the way to describe it,” Ashley said. “People were living under tarps with four poles.”
At first, “they didn’t like us,” Ashley said. Residents were skeptical because they went “three weeks with no help from anybody. It was just a disaster.”
The only attention the Shawnee families had gotten up until the local church group’s arrival was from “picture-takers and looters,” Ashley said. “People were violent.”
Members of the Mayo group realized they had to prove their good intentions if they were going to be accepted. So they went shopping — and returned with 17 tents to give the people for temporary housing.
They went up to “a man named Bill, a mean person, violent,” and offered him a tent. “Eventually we gained their trust. He accepted our tent and started crying,” Ashley said.
“This is the roughest person you ever met in your life, just trying to protect his family,” Ashley added.
The local residents asked Bill if they could come back the rest of the week to help, and he agreed. After that, “it snowballed. He introduced us to friends and neighbors” who needed help.
One of their projects was to put a roof on the home of a 72-year-old couple. It was hard work in the 95-degree heat, Ashley said.
Marla Perry, who was on the trip, worked in a supply hut at a church in Oklahoma City to help distribute supplies. She said groups in Oklahoma “were just overwhelmed with all of the things that were coming in from people all over the country. They would get truckload after truckload of supplies coming in, and those supplies needed to get out to the people.”
Dropping everything to help
The trip came together on short notice. Shortly after the tornadoes devastated Oklahoma, Mayo Christian Church decided to donate $5,000 to help the people there. The announcement was made to the congregation during a Sunday service.
Apparently, that wasn’t enough. After the service, several people pulled Ashley aside and told him, “‘That’s great, but why don’t we actually go out and do something and give them the money,” he said.
At the time, Ashley had thought “it takes months to plan these things,” but he accepted a challenge: “If we got five people (to go), we’d do it.” Church members had 13 days to plan the excursion.
Ashley made contacts in Oklahoma to get the group a place to stay for free and meals. Others arranged transportation. Nelson Automotive Family provided two 15-passenger vans with discount on rental fees. Louis Riddle and the owners of Broadview Auto Sales and Ward’s junk yards donated $600 to cover the van costs. Other vehicles were offered: a van and big trailer from Jay Pigg of Millard’s Machinery, a van from Mack Lewis and a truck and trailer from Johnny Ward.
Several area churches pitched in, including Rich Acres Christian Church, Patrick Springs Christian Church, Stella Christian Church and Hillcrest Baptist Church. Their donations averaged about $1,000. “They liked that we would actually take the money” directly where it was needed, instead of sending it through an organization which would use some of it for overhead, Ashley said. Some of their members joined the trip.
Treveling to Oklahoma were Ashley and his father, Lee Ashley; Chris and Jennifer Hooker and their children Toby and Tiffany; Edward Hutchens; Wanda Shelton; Debbie Anglin; brothers Michael Lester and Teddy Lester and their uncle Darryl Lester; Ronnie Davis; Deborah Wenzel and her mother Debbie Wenzel; Abby Nance, her mother Tammy Nance and her father-in-law Bobby Nance; Susan Shelton; Nancy Taylor; Marla Perry and her daughter Erin Perry; Sherri Wilson; Betty Joe Havens; Johnny Ward; and Mack Lewis.
“Everybody took off work at the last minute,” Ashley said. “Everybody made a sacrifice.”
Their efforts, and the Shawnee’s plight, were noticed in a big way in Oklahoma on June 13, near the end of the Mayo group’s time there. That day, a front page story in the Oklahoman talked about “how these people (residents of the reservation) were left to fend for themselves,” Ashley said. “FEMA finally came in and helped the people,” but it was late.
“The newspapers ran in bold letters a quote from one of the residents: ‘if it wasn’t for the church volunteers, we wouldn’t be where we are today.’”
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done as a preacher,” Ashley said. “We went there for a blessing and to help people, and we’re the ones that caught the blessing.”