Clean-up volunteers “living out our Gospel values”


“Why did God allow the tornado?” asked Joanne Koechner of Tipton.

“Maybe so Missouri could show the world how to set aside differences and love thy neighbor.”

She might be on to something, judging by the volunteer work that’s taken place following the May 22 tornados that affected Cole, Hickory, Miller and Randolph Counties.

That’s how it looked to Shelly and Mike Hittner of Immaculate Conception parish, who spent Memorial Day helping with debris removal in tornado affected areas of their hometown.

“The physical work and the feeding of people has been impressive,” said Mrs. Hittner. “People were getting very creative with ways to help.”

She spoke of how graciously people from different neighborhoods, social circles and churches worked together.

“No one was competing or trying to show off,” she said. “Everyone was taking their level of expertise, whatever that is, and using it do hard labor in a gentle and respectful and gracious way.”

She said the residents were present at about half the homes she and her husband visited.

“Those present were very appreciative and very hands-on in terms of helping the volunteers,” she said. “They wanted to get in and do their part as much as they could.”

It was clear that most were physically and emotionally exhausted, “but it was nice to see a face to go along with the property that’s being worked on,” she said. “For me, that just makes is all the more real.”

Mrs. Hittner previously helped with clean-up after tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma; Washington, Illinois; and Joplin, Missouri.

“The scenes and the work are all very much the same,” she said. “But when it’s practically in your own backyard, it’s different. There’s another whole level of emotion tied to it when it’s your own community.”

She said she recognized God’s presence “all over the place.”

“It’s not anything people have been hiding,” she said. “Every location I worked at in town, everybody was awed that there were no severe injuries or fatalities here.”

Whether or not they come at it from a faith perspective, “I think everyone agrees that this is more than luck,” she said.

She enjoyed visiting with a 90-year-old woman who was sleeping when the tornado sheered the second story off of her house.

“She said in all her years, she had never seen anything like this,” said Mrs. Hittner. “And she was there when the clean-up crew showed up to help. She was a little rattled but very grateful for the help.”

Before falling asleep after a hard day’s work, Mrs. Hittner offered God a litany of thanks.

“I thanked Him for giving me a safe place to go, and for the technology that helps keep us up-to-date on severe weather,” she said. “I know that played a big role in saving lives.” 

She also thanked God for “the gentle, truly helpful and neighborly spirit among homeowners and volunteers and professionals alike.”

“People in need”

Another volunteer who spent two days helping clear up debris said she was amazed at the range of people who showed up to help.

“There was a group of Amish people who traveled three hours to work here,” she said. “That was impressive to me.”

She was also struck by the magnitude of the destruction of some places, along with volunteers’ willingness to jump in and assist.

She signed up to help “because there were people in need.”

“Whatever I had going on, whatever I thought was urgent to get done suddenly seemed frivolous compared to what people were going through,” she said.

Crusader spirit

The varsity football, baseball and boys basketball coaches at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City called off weight training the day after the tornado.

Instead, the student athletes helped carry furniture and debris out of the Special Olympics Training for Life building.

Completed and dedicated last November, the state-of-the-art building and surrounding campus were significantly damaged in the tornado.

Gary Wilbers, chairman of the board for Special Olympics Missouri, called Helias Catholic varsity football Coach Chris Hentges to ask for help.

Mr. Wilbers hoped maybe 10 to 15 football players could help move furniture out of the building so repairs could commence.

Word got around to Helias boys varsity basketball Coach Joe Rothweiler, who sent a request out to his players on Twitter.

Varsity baseball Coach Chris Wyrick saw the request and invited his players to help out, too.

They joined members of the University of Missouri’s varsity baseball team at the Training for Life facility.

“I was proud to see their willingness and even joy in serving,” said Zach Rockers, who teaches religion at Helias and is the assistant varsity coach for football and basketball.

He said the young men were able to knock out in about half a day what needed to get done.

He noticed their reaction when athletes from the Special Olympics thanked them for their help.

“I think they were excited to get to do something bigger than themselves,” he said.

He saw in their work and their interaction with the athletes who take part in the Special Olympics as “a manifestation of living out our Gospel values.”

“They might not have been talking about our faith the whole time,” he said. “But I’d say they were living it.”

He believes the Helias athletes received an abundance in return for their labor.

“I think they probably grew spiritually and as men of God even more than they were able to help serve that day,” he said.