In the aftermath of the worst tornado to hit the United States in decades, Catholics in northwest Arkansas rolled up their sleeves the following day to help the victims of the deadly storm.
On Sunday, May 22, an EF5 tornado hit Joplin, Mo., a city of 50,000 located 70 miles north of Rogers. The death toll reached 141 June 5. Among the destroyed buildings were St. Mary Church, School, rectory and parish hall. St. John Regional Medical Center was severely damaged.
One of the people who immediately wanted to help was Tracy DeLeon, a member of St. Stephen Church in Bentonville.
"Early Monday morning after Sunday's storm, I just knew I had to do something to help," she said. "I have friends in Joplin who had no damage, but I still couldn't bear not helping. To me, it only takes one person to make a difference."
In an effort to set up a donation drive, DeLeon contacted the church office about the use of their parish hall.
"The church didn't hesitate to let me use their facility and, as it turned out, I received a great deal of help from Suzanne Sutton and Julie Kremin, staff members at St. Stephen's, and others while I was working during the day," she said.
In an effort to speed up the process and to get the necessary donations to Joplin, DeLeon reached out to both local media and social media to spread the word about the donation drive.
"I contacted 40/29 news and they listed it; the Morning News listed it. I put it on Facebook and e-mailed friends. In the church office, Suzanne sent an e-mail to Life Teen, the youth group at church, to help spread the word," she said.
The response to their efforts was "unbelievably overwhelming in a great way. It far exceeded my expectations," she added.
Being in the same city as the Wal-Mart headquarters and all of its vendors, several companies stepped up with donations. Fruit of the Loom donated underwear, Keeco donated bedding, Jay Franco donated towels and blankets and Evenflo donated baby bottles, car seats and other baby items.
"To deliver the donations, we moved up from a pickup truck to a panel truck to a semi to make our delivery on Saturday (May 28). Barrett Direct Truck Lines provided a truck and driver for this," DeLeon said.
DeLeon, her husband Juan and their son, Nick, accompanied the truck May 28 to Joplin.
"We delivered items to The Bridge (a local youth center), the Wildwood Baptist Church and two different Salvation Army locations," she said. "The situation there was, in a word, shocking. It is nothing like what you see on TV or in the newspaper. My heart goes out to each and every one of those who lost their lives, their homes and their normalcy."
At St. Joseph Church in Tontitown, the Knights of Columbus Council 4538 are also working to provide donations for the victims of the tornado. Eric Pellin, grand knight, said, "We decided to set this up while watching the coverage on the local news. The response has been good. We are using the social media like Facebook to get the word out for donations. On Facebook we have a list of items to donate and a date to deliver the donations. Right now we are waiting on the next Red Cross truck to become available so we can take our donations in."
Mercy Medical Center in Rogers also organized a drive with the assistance of the local media. The hospital is part of the Sisters of Mercy Health System along with St. Joseph Mercy Health Center in Hot Springs, St. Edward Mercy Medical Center in Fort Smith and St. John Regional Medical Center in Joplin.
Clark Ellison, vice president of Mercy Health Foundation, said, "Heavy promotion from the radio stations and two TV stations allowed this to be a huge success."
After working to secure a semi-truck and the manpower to do a three-day drive, Mercy Medical Center set up the donation drive in the hospital parking lot at 7 a.m. Tuesday, May 24. One important factor in the success of the drive was "to find a recipient organization that could take the donated items and assure us that they would benefit families in Joplin," Ellison said.
These relief organizations include Ozark Harvest Group headquartered in Springfield, Mo., and Grace Baptist Church, the lead distribution center for the Red Cross in Joplin.
The hospital donation drive filled two semi-trucks and two smaller trucks.
"It's very heartwarming to see the people drive up here, open their car doors and hearts to people they don't even know. There were people of all ages donating. The best one was a 3-year-old boy that got out of his car, grabbed a package of diapers and carried it to our sorting area. We live in a very blessed community, full of generous individuals and corporations," Ellison said.
"The residents are immensely grateful for any and all help, and we plan on being there again this Saturday and every Saturday that we can for the entire summer/fall and then some," DeLeon said. "They will need our help for a very long time and they should not be forgotten."
Printed with permission from Arkansas Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.