April 27, 2012

Teenagers give up spring break to help Henryville tornado victims

Teenage volunteers from three parishes in Louisville form a line to pass logs and debris down a hill they are helping to clear for a family near Henryville on April 11. A barn and seven acres of trees were destroyed, and two houses on the property were partially damaged by one of the March 2 tornadoes. (Photo by Patricia Happel Cornwell)

Teenage volunteers from three parishes in Louisville form a line to pass logs and debris down a hill they are helping to clear for a family near Henryville on April 11. A barn and seven acres of trees were destroyed, and two houses on the property were partially damaged by one of the March 2 tornadoes. (Photo by Patricia Happel Cornwell) Click for a larger version.

By Patricia Happel Cornwell (Special to The Criterion)

HENRYVILLE—On the afternoon of March 2, Dave Neeson, his wife, Crista, and their 20-month old son, Kyle, took shelter in the basement of their home in Valley Station, Ky., to wait out a tornado headed straight for Louisville.

They could hear hail pounding the roof and windows. To their relief, the twister veered north, but it laid waste to several southern Indiana communities, including Henryville in Clark County.

Neeson, youth minister for St. Paul and Incarnation parishes in Louisville, said, “I was sure that tornado was meant for me.” When it didn’t strike his home, he felt “called to help” those it did hurt.

He had planned to take his youth group to Mississippi during spring break in April. They had gone there in previous years to help people still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When the tornadoes struck Indiana, Henryville became the group’s new destination.

Chris Luken, youth minister at Church of the Epiphany Parish in Louisville, planned to take his youth group to volunteer in Joplin, Mo., which was devastated by a tornado last year. They also redirected their spring break project to Henryville, where they worked with Neeson’s group.

Eighteen teens and seven adults from the three parishes teamed up to help with the cleanup. Their first assignment from Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis was to clear downed trees from between two homes on a 13-acre site.

Both homes were damaged, and a barn between them was flattened. Neeson said the mangled trees looked like “pick-up sticks” when they arrived on the scene. The team began clearing the broken trees to make a path between the family’s house and a grandfather’s house next door.

The teenagers spent the week camping in tents on the grounds of Mount St. Francis Retreat Center in Floyd County, enduring cold nights and discomfort in solidarity with those who lost their homes in the tornadoes. They had lunch each day at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville, where Father Steven Schaftlein, pastor, continues to guide disaster relief efforts.

Before lunch one day, the group clasped hands for prayer in a way that Neeson calls “interdigitation.”

They interwove their fingers to symbolize that, as one girl explained, “Our fingers stand for our strengths and the valleys between them are our weaknesses, but we fill one another’s weaknesses and are all stronger together.”

Darrian Thompson, 17, said she volunteered “because I love to help people.”

Ally Houston, 14, said, “I thought we were just going to fix up houses and comfort people, but we’re doing hard work.”

The girls originally volunteered to travel to Mississippi. Other students gave up trips to the beach to join the effort.

Austin Sanders, 17, was “just going to stay home” during spring break, but when he found out that the youth group was going to help in Henryville he decided to volunteer with them.

“It’s actually pretty fun,” he said. “I’m having a blast.”

During lunch, Father Schaftlein said, “The emergency needs have been met, but we’re now in the limbo phase between emergency and rebuilding. Everybody’s waiting on insurance and FEMA payments. It will probably be May before most of the rebuilding can start. That’s when we’re going to need organized groups of volunteers the most.”

Sandra Lefebvre, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, is a volunteer who conducts intake interviews for Catholic Charities. Nearly two months after the tornadoes, she is still taking four to eight applications a day. Some people ask only for food or paper products.

“If you start asking questions though,” Father Schaftlein said, “sometimes you find out they haven’t contacted FEMA yet. We found out one woman’s car was destroyed—something FEMA won’t pay for—but she didn’t want to ask for help.”

“I came here to do something for Lent,” Lefebvre said. “But Lent is over, and I keep coming back [to Henryville]. I fell in love with these people. In other places, people try to take advantage of the help that’s being offered, but these people don’t know how to do anything but tell the truth.”

Back at the work site, Neeson handed out work gloves. While the adults operated the chain saws, the teenagers formed a line then passed logs and brush down a hillside to be tossed onto huge piles of debris. One of the heaps is undistinguishable as the former site of the barn.

On April 12, the teenage crews were divided between two other work sites. One team donned “hazmat” suits and masks to remove moldy drywall and insulation from a home, and the second group cleaned up metal, glass and other debris in an area where children had been running around barefooted.

The first location is owned by a single, disabled woman who has no insurance. At the second site, the teenagers found an identification card, old photographs and other mementos, which they returned to the family.

“It is certainly not glamorous work,” said Jane Crady, archdiocesan coordinator of Catholic Charities disaster preparedness and response, “but it’s very much appreciated by the families who live there. They are a fantastic group of young people.”

On April 13, the youths cleaned up debris in the cemetery that serves St. Francis Xavier Parish and St. Michael Parish in Charlestown. At the end of the week, Neeson and Luken rewarded the teenagers with time to play paintball and laser tag games.

A Louisville TV station came one day to film the teenagers at work.

“The media coverage makes the kids feel good about what they’re doing,” Luken said, “but it’s also a ‘loaves and fishes’ kind of thing. When other people see what these kids are doing, they may decide to come out and help, too.”

(Patricia Happel Cornwell is a freelance writer and member of St. Joseph Parish in Corydon. Information on how to volunteer is available at www.archindy.org/tornadoes or at 317-236-1500 or 800-382-9836, ext. 1500. Checks made payable to Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Indianapolis, with “tornado relief” on the memo line, may be mailed to Catholic Charities, Attention: Tornado Relief, 1400 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46202.)

Local site Links: