Small deeds, big difference

BY SUSAN KIM | LA PLATA, MD | May 6, 2002



"I won't tell you we did a lot for him but the things we did changed his life."

—Peter Soderholm


One 67-year-old farmer in Hughesville -- a rural Maryland town lacerated by last week's monster tornado -- grows greens for a living.

Before the storm the farmer had a two-story farmhouse, explained Peter Soderholm of the United Methodist first response team. "He was a putterer. So he had 12 operating tractors he kept in a barn. And he had enough tools to operate several machine shops."

After the tornado, the farmer's house was condemned. His barn was flattened. His tool sheds were destroyed.

The man's sons and some of his friends came and put up some tarps to help him protect what he could. A couple days later, the United Methodist team arrived. "I won't tell you we did a lot for him but the things we did changed his life," said Soderholm.

Soderholm and other volunteers procured a portable toilet for the farmer, who wouldn't leave his property after looters tried to steal his tractors the day after the tornado struck. "We also got a tent from social services. And we got him a lantern and a heater. It's not much but at least he knows he has some friends."

Soderholm called his group's response "an example of holy boldness."

And boldness doesn't always mean harrowing rescues or dramatic single-handed acts.

The tornado that ripped through southern Maryland April 28 damaged or destroyed more than 860 homes, and at least 194 businesses. La Plata is full of small "mom-and-pop" shops, and about 70 percent of them are gone, estimated county emergency management officials.

The storm claimed four lives and injured nearly 100 people. It is one of Maryland's worst natural disasters in history.

In a 30-mile path, the tornado also crossed the Chesapeake Bay and damaged homes and property in Dorchester County. The rubble is being removed in such large amounts it has to be trucked to a temporary landfill north of La Plata.

Town officials are looking to rebuild the downtown area based on a plan that was already being considered before the storm hit. In fact, the town's facelift will now be ahead of schedule. The disaster has been the catalyst for revitalization.

Many old-timers in La Plata remember a tornado some 80 years ago about five miles south of La Plata. "It was in 1926, and it hit a school, and many children were killed," remembered the Rev. William Kilson, Sr., pastor at Zion Baptist Church.

In the face of major destruction, sometimes helping is as simple as making a phone call. Salvation Army leaders in La Plata described how much difference even one call makes.

Bernie Dake said Salvation Army volunteers answered a phone call from a woman concerned about her mother, who lived about seven doors down from The Salvation Army's command center in La Plata.

When volunteers checked on the woman, it turned out she hadn't had phone service and couldn't call her daughter. "She refused to leave her home for fear that someone would try to steal her things," said Dake. "Further investigation revealed that she hadn't had a hot meal (in several days)."

A Salvation Army canteen promptly began providing hot meals for the woman. And volunteers also helped her get in touch with her insurance company. "I've never had to ask for help and I'm glad God brought you here today," she told them.

Volunteers will be making a difference in La Plata for a long time to come. Crews from church and community groups have been helping clear debris from yards, praying for those affected, and simply listening to stories of trauma and survival.

The Salvation Army plans to work with Catholic Charities to offer spiritual care for those affected.

Several ecumenical healing services have been offered in and around La Plata, with more planned as recovery continues.

As response goes on in La Plata, many denominational response groups continue to offer training to volunteers that will help them learn to respond before another disaster strikes. Enrolling in such training is another way people can contribute their time and resources.

As for material donations, don't clean out your closet, added Brian Lewis of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). "One thing we don't need is clothes. That's usually the disaster that follows the disaster. So don't donate any clothes.

UMCOR provided monetary support and technical expertise to responding groups in La Plata and other areas in the country affected by tornadoes.

Church World Service (CWS) is dispatching a disaster response and recovery liaison to help coordinate a long-term interfaith response. Denominational response groups such as Week of Compassion, a giving program administered by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have been financially supporting CWS's efforts.

Cash donations are still needed and are the best way to help those impacted, emphasized responding groups. For those who must donate material goods, The Salvation Army is collecting shovels, rakes, chainsaws, small generators, 30-gallon storage bins, and tarps. "At this time there is no need for used clothing donations," added Dake.

"We all have gifts that we can help with," concluded Soderholm. "All you have to do is have a willing heart," said Lewis. "And I'm sure people won't forget God's workers."


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