Volunteers help MO town

Stockton residents were somewhat disconcerted by the unexpected arrival of 80 Mennonite volunteers at City Hall last month.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | STOCKTON, Mo. | June 6, 2003

"I haven't seen anything like it since the fall of Saigon when I was there."

—Casey Cunningham

Stockton residents were somewhat disconcerted by the unexpected arrival of 80 Mennonite volunteers at City Hall last month. "The citizens didn't really know what to do," recalled Sam Hostetler, who is coordinating tornado cleanup in southwest Missouri for Mennonite Disaster Service. "They were so confused. They just said, 'Go out and pick your street.'"

Much of Stockton was leveled by a May 4 tornado. Some 248 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. More than 500 incurred minor damage. All but one building on the downtown square was wiped out.

"We did a lot of work there," Hostetler said. "We got a lot of cleanups done. I mean, you can clean up forever, but as far as the bulk of it goes, they've really cleaned up fast."

That's partly because of a tremendous outpouring of Mennonite volunteer help, something Hostetler himself didn't expect.

"Usually we have to drum the bushes pretty hard. I was amazed this time," he said. "I didn't limit it. I said at least 30. The next day I had 80. I had so many I didn't know how to keep them all going."

Many of the volunteers, like Hostetler himself, were Amish Mennonites, dressed in traditional Amish attire.

The numbers of volunteers dropped off the next day, but the work continued. On their second day of work, the mayor of Stockton entrusted the Mennonites with a job that no one else had been allowed to do: clean up the Stockton cemetery.

This was a tricky assignment: the tornado knocked over more than 70 percent of the headstones, and spread tree limbs and debris throughout the grounds. The workers didn't try to repair the headstones that's a job that still needs to be done, said Stockton Mayor Ralph Steele. But they did clean up the debris, which took 50 volunteers two days to accomplish.

"The Mennonite volunteers do a very good job," Steele said.

For about two weeks, the Mennonites were hauling out about 80 truckloads of trash every day. The result is a three-story mountain of garbage in the town park. Steele was pleased to say the town has signed a contract with a company to have the debris hauled off to a landfill, a process that just got underway.

Now Hostetler and his crew are ready to move on to the next stage repairing roofs and rebuilding homes. To get started, the city has provided the Mennonites with a damaged building to use as headquarters. The town will furnish the materials, and the Mennonites will provide the labor.

"The rebuild is just ready to start," he said. About eight to ten volunteers will start working on homes next week, and that project will continue, at the very least, into autumn.

Hostetler has had only one day off since the recovery work began. He plans to go back to work on his farm, which he left in the hands of his four grown sons, and coordinate the rebuilding from a distance.

Salvation Army, Adventists run warehouse

In addition to cleanup and repair work, there are dozens of volunteers making sure storm survivors get food, clothing and other necessities.

Various donations centers around Stockton, two of which were run by First Southern Baptist of Stockton and the Stockton Assembly of God, have been centralized at a warehouse operated by The Salvation Army and Adventist Community Services.

These two groups are working to help both townspeople and relief workers, many of whom have never seen such devastation in their lives.

"I haven't seen anything like it since the fall of Saigon when I was there," said Casey Cunningham, the warehouse coordinator.

The warehouse offers everything storm survivors will need food, water, clothing, furniture, beds, appliances, even toys. About 540 of the 850 affected families have stopped by the warehouse.

"It's like a Wal-Mart," Cunningham said. "We even have shopping carts."

Then there are all the toys donated by the U.S. Marine Corps.

"When you look into the eyes of those traumatized kids every day - well, it put some smiles on their faces," he said.

Right now, the warehouse is running a little low on canned food, and Cunningham is trying to collect more.

"We had just a huge amount," Cunningham said, "but it's just dwindling."

The Salvation Army and the Adventists will run the warehouse until the end of June. At that point, the operation will be taken over by a local interfaith group, the Stockton Area Recovery Committee, which was put together with the guidance of Church World Service.

The committee is just getting started, and will begin to work on cases of unmet need this summer, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance companies have provide their assistance.

Meanwhile, The Salvation Army continues to deliver food around the Stockton area. Each loop, Cunningham said, takes about seven hours, and serves between 600 and 700 people every day.

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