'You would feel awful low'

After a tornado leveled the Forest Valley Community Church, the Rev. Pearl Jackson received a phone call that rebuilt her spirit.

BY SUSAN KIM | FOREST VALLEY, Ill. | June 9, 2004

"Piece by piece it's falling into place."

—Conrad Wetzel

After a tornado leveled the Forest Valley Community Church, the Rev. Pearl Jackson received a phone call that rebuilt her spirit.

"It was a lady whose church had also been destroyed. And I thought, 'if she can do it, so can I.' She'd been there."

And, every so often, the phone still rings, said Jackson. "People have called all the way from Canada. If it wasn't for those nice words, you would feel awful low. You know, people do care. Somebody's looking for tomorrow."

Now Jackson's church will be rebuilt as well, thanks to volunteer crews managed by Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

The building - sanctuary since 1962 for a 24-member congregation in rural Kankakee County in northeast Illinois - was constructed to withstand a lot of wind, said Jackson, but not the tornado that hit it April 20. "We built it ourselves," she said.

For a small rural congregation, the financial disaster is overwhelming. "It's a trial," said Jackson. "It's a tribulation."

The independent, non-denominational congregation realized that, without outside support, they could never rebuild, said Jackson. Thanks to Jackson's perseverance - along with help from MDS, Church World Service, and others from the faith community - the congregation will rebuild on the same site. For now, they are worshipping in a house.

MDS plans to begin construction in the next couple of weeks, Jackson said, "and thank God for them."

A severe storm spawned more than 20 tornadoes and cut a two-mile swath through north central Illinois April 20, collapsing buildings and destroying hundreds of homes. LaSalle, Kankakee, Putnam and Will counties received presidential disaster declarations. Some 668 homes and businesses were affected in the four counties, with more than 300 homes sustaining major damage, according to Illinois emergency management officials.

The needs of a small church in rural Forest Valley could easily have gone unnoticed, said Conrad Wetzel, president of the board of the Illinois MDS chapter. "It's a very impoverished area," he said, "one of the poorest economic situations in Illinois."

The tornado happened on a Tuesday, he remembered, and three days later MDS representatives had met Rev. Jackson and some of her church members. "There is a small Mennonite church two to three miles from that church, and members of that church were helping Rev. Jackson clean up her site."

MDS - which has been rebuilding churches and homes in the wake of disasters for more than 50 years - has trained volunteers who well know the complexities of rebuilding a church or a home. In Kankakee County, blueprints for a building must be approved by a licensed architect from the state - a cost that can run a couple thousand dollars. "We located an excellent architect who would work pro bono," said Wetzel. "He had done some work in that area, and he has given us other information that will be useful in the building process. He is a very fine person."

MDS has already coordinated volunteers to do some cleanup work.

The local Mennonite church has loaned its parsonage, which was vacant, to house volunteers. MDS has already completed work on the parsonage so it's in shape to house volunteers.

The last hurdle before beginning construction is a survey of the site. "That would normally cost $1,500 but we have a surveyor coming from Indiana to do it for free."

MDS has also selected experienced project directors who will live onsite and coordinate the work. "They'll be moving up here soon to get started. We just have to get the final blueprint, and the materials list. Piece by piece it's falling into place."

Wetzel said MDS is recruiting volunteers to assist with the rebuild. And he urged people not to forget disaster survivors everywhere who need long-term help, long after their situation leaves the headlines.

In fact, volunteers who descend on a disaster site immediately after the disaster hits do more harm than good. Often local resources aren't set up to handle an influx of people, and severely damaged areas are often roped off so emergency crews can work.

In Utica, Ill. - another community that sustained severe tornado damage - response teams weren't letting people in right after the twister stuck. "But people were saying they really wanted to come and help," said Wetzel. "When they heard their services weren't needed just yet, they said, 'But we have to get there now. That way we can be on TV.' "

A similar situation happened in Hallam, Neb., a small town struck by a May tornado. Some 600 people descended on the village - home to only 276 people - in the couple days after the tornado struck. That number of volunteers was unmanageable for local groups, and already local officials there are predicting long-term needs will be tough to meet, needs that spring up long after many volunteers have lost their compulsion to help.

When it's time for long-term rebuilding, volunteers are often harder to come by, he said. "Then we have to scurry around and find them."

But by and large, the urge to volunteer is an admirable one, and after a disaster, people tend to reach out and help, added Sterling Corey, MDS state coordinator for Illinois. "There's a few good people left in this world," he said.

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