Saturday before last I joined my friend at a local car dealership to help with a toy drive. This wasn’t a typical, seasonal toy drive. It was to restore Christmas for the children and the parents whose houses were severely damaged or destroyed by the nine post-Christmas tornados in the Garland/Rowlett area.
Imagine, as a child, having to flee your home one day after Santa tucked the presents you waited for all year under your tree and in your stocking only to return and find your home and toys all swept away. Having never faced anything like that in my childhood I had no clue as to what that might be like. That changed yesterday.
Yesterday, a call went out for people and vehicles to help transport the collected toys from a storage area to the church in Rowlett where they would be given to the local kids on Saturday. The toy drive had been such a success that it took three pickup trucks and an equal number of cars to get it all to the church. Having never been to Rowlett before I followed one of the other vehicles through the last light of Thursday across the handful of miles from the storage facility.
Making the next to last turn before the parking lot I crossed the demarcation line between undamaged homes and those with some, a lot and complete devastation. I’ve been close to damage from earthquakes, hurricanes, fires and more before, but I’ve never seen tornado damage from the ground. At first sight I gasped a little. I’d read many accounts where a tornado leaves one house undamaged but the one next door looks like it was squashed by the foot of an angry giant. That’s what I saw yesterday.
As we were all up against the clock I didn’t have time to spend time in damaged neighborhoods. That will have to wait until late tomorrow. But what I did see was that even though the devastation happened more than a month ago there were still piles of rubble in front yards and huge dumpsters in driveways to collect debris. Other houses, too damaged to repair, were bulldozed flat, leaving a messy pile of wood, brick, sheetrock and other debris on the center of their slabs. Even a month removed from the destruction, the storms’ aftermath was still there, in full view.
Images of earthquakes, lava flows, hurricanes and the like flash across our screens with regularity, so what is it about these tornados? I saw the aftermath in person, with my own eyes. It does make a difference. I saw the people cleaning up their properties. I saw the backhoes removing debris. I saw the blue tarps over the roofs and plywood on the windows protecting what remains from the elements. The network and local TV cameras were gone but the fractured lives of those impacted remain. That’s what I saw. It was a blow. Like something hit me in the chest.
One might ask, “What can we do?” For starters, what those from the different charities are doing to help the families rebuild. The people donating, collecting, transporting and delivering the toys are mostly from in and around Rowlett and Garland. They have reached out to their neighbors together to take away the hurt, to lend a hand, to do what a community does when an unstoppable crisis befalls their neighbors. They don’t wait for outsiders to step in. They grab a shovel, hammer, saw, whatever it takes to start putting things right.
It has happened many times before. Katrina in Mississippi. Tornados in Joplin, MO. Hurricane Bob in Massachusetts. The Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes in California. The list is nearly endless. Pitching in together is what neighbors, communities and America writ large have always done since the days of the first settlers. It’s part of our core values. To help the helpless. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. We learned this in our houses of worship and in our homes.
The only way the kids in Rowlett were going to get Christmas back was if the community made it happen. Looking beyond their own individual ease and seeing the discomfort of those displaced and distressed. Seeing a sad child and wanting to erase the frown with the joy of a new toy from Santa, straight from his bag. Were elves going to do it? No. It was the generosity of neighbors, not only with money, but with their time and hard work.
I know that tomorrow my heart, hurt when I first saw the destruction, will fill with joy from the smiles on the children’s faces. Parents too. Giving back yields amazing gifts for those who do the giving. Maybe even more than the families getting the toys. I don’t know. Ask me tomorrow.
Giving to our neighbors in need is part of the American tradition. Alexis De Tocqueville, a French historian, political scientist and politician, traveling across this young country in the early 19th century said that, “America is great because America is good.”
It was born that way. It’s up to each of us to make sure that it remains that way.