Special Reports

December 25, 2007

Post-tornado gifts overwhelm Greensburg

Residents in the tiny town of Fairview didn't know they'd be sending trees, toys and ornaments -- all the essentials of Christmas -- to the kids of tornado-torn Greensburg.

Outpourings of kindness

Residents in the tiny town of Fairview didn't know they'd be sending trees, toys and ornaments -- all the essentials of Christmas -- to the kids of tornado-torn Greensburg.

But that was before their mayor, Charles Rogers, decided in September to drive some 300 miles with his wife, Isabel, to see the destruction for himself.

"I guess I was being what you call snoopy," Rogers said.

He saw what hundreds of outsiders before him saw. A town obliterated by a May tornado. Only a few buildings left standing. City business conducted out of trailers because even City Hall was gone. So much loss.

But he also saw church youth groups helping clear debris and rebuild homes. He heard about the donations from individuals and towns -- from toothbrushes to fire trucks -- to help Greensburg rebuild and survive.

In a year filled with ice storms, blizzards, floods and tornadoes, what stands out for many is not the destruction, but the kindness of strangers. In many cases, strangers who have suffered their own losses from natural disasters.

"Words just can't describe it," said Matt Deighton, volunteer coordinator with the South Central Kansas Tornado Recovery Organization. "It makes me get a little soft."

A group of young people from Mississippi -- victims of Hurricane Katrina -- drove all the way to Kansas in the summer just to provide a crawfish feed for the folks in Greensburg. On July 4, the PigMasters -- a group of barbecuers from North Carolina -- hosted a reunion for all the displaced residents and roasted 10 pigs for the town.

A high school student from Enterprise, Ala., who survived a tornado that ripped apart his high school and killed eight students, drove to Greensburg with a load of 500 or so books because he read that the Kansas school lost its library. Getting the books for Greensburg was his Eagle Scout project.

"I had remembered (the) Enterprise (tornado) from the news," said Susan Staats, a Greensburg schoolteacher whom the teen contacted about the project. "And it was especially touching to me. He had lost his schoolmates and we had been so blessed that none of our kids were killed, we had no children lost in the tornado. To me, their situation was far worse."

It's the sort of kindness that Staats and others find overwhelming.

A little girl in Oklahoma collected hundreds of dollars from classmates and friends. A couple in Denver asked their wedding guests to give donations to the Kansas town in lieu of gifts for them. A third-grade class in Mississippi made street signs to replace those blown away in the tornado.

Church members across the country knitted shawls and quilted blankets. Whole towns collected money. Just last week, a group of New York City firefighters was in Greensburg to help the kids in town plant about 200 colorful "Stars of Hope" along the path of the tornado. Individuals have sent in hundreds of thousands of dollars, with checks as small as a few dollars.

"Even now, we get a check or two every day," said Denise Unruh of the South Central Kansas Community Foundation, established two days after the tornado to help in the rebuilding process. "The outpouring of caring is just wonderful."

So why should Christmas be any different?

On their way home from Greensburg, Charles and Isabel Rogers hadn't reached Wichita yet when Isabel turned to her husband and said, "There's got to be something we can do to make a better Christmas for those kids down there."

Before long, Fairview, population about 260, had a potato-bar fundraiser with entertainment and a chili/soup feed. Charles and Isabel Rogers told their town what they wanted to do for the kids whose parents lost everything in the tornado. The donations came pouring in.

"This wasn't just a city project or a Charles-and-Isabel-Rogers project, it was a community effort," Charles Rogers said.

Earlier this month, Fairview had collected enough money and toys to make a delivery -- hundreds of Christmas trees, ornaments and new toys.

"It was just amazing," said Stacy Barnes, who works for Greensburg. "They brought us everything."

Things like basketballs and Barbie dolls and CD players and earrings. Most of the Christmas trees brought down were 4 ½ feet tall, small enough to fit in FEMA mobile homes where most residents now live. They threw in a few 6-footers for the people who've already rebuilt their homes.

Greensburg no longer has poles to hang Christmas lights on Main Street. It has no mature trees, bushes or houses to hang ornaments on, either.

But a few weeks ago, workers put up a tree along Main Street and hung some energy-efficient multi-colored lights. Volunteers came from Wichita to decorate the campus of trailers that serves as the school, and Fairview donated enough trees, ornaments and lights for all the families in town.

And when it came time for the annual Christmas parade, folks just decorated whatever they had -- trucks and tractors and lawn mowers -- and the school marching band played some holiday songs.

Call it a new kind of Greensburg Christmas. Nothing fancy, nothing like they used to have. Definitely nothing the people of this town figured they'd be in store for a year ago.

But forget about what's gone, say some residents. Look at what this Christmas does have that others didn't. Steady streams of donated goods, hundreds if not thousands of volunteers wanting to help this town, and a level of kindness these residents didn't know existed.

"Nobody in Greensburg should ever feel jaded and think people in the world don't care," said Staats, the schoolteacher. "We have experienced it every day."

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