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Thankfulness builds in Spencer's rebirth

BY GEORGE PIPER | SPENCER, S.D. | November 28, 1998

SPENCER, S.D. (Nov. 28, 1998) -- Heading into the holiday season, the mood

in this tiny South Dakota town is becoming one of thankfulness and cheer.

Working like elves in Santa's workshop, construction workers busily hammer

nails and pour foundations for Spencer's new buildings. Homes and business

rise slowly from the landscape, with progress slowed only snowflakes

falling from the late autumn sky.

Flashback to six months earlier, it wasn't several inches of snow but

several feet of debris covering Spencer's streets and fields. On May 30, a

powerful tornado swept through the town of 320 people, nearly literally

wiping it off the map. Six people died and more than 150 were injured in

the farming community located 45 miles northwest of Sioux Falls.

And though the community, at least initially, won't have as many

residents as it did before that deadly twister, just the fact that Spencer

will still exist is amazing.

Playing a strong role in that recovery has been the Spencer Area Recovery

and Interfaith Network (SARIN), a faith-based organization sprung to life

from the ruins.

"I feel really confident that we are meeting the needs of the people," said

the Rev. Mark Dickson, president of SARIN and pastor at Sun Prairie Baptist

Church in nearby Salem.

The organization allocated more than $350,000 of nearly $500,000 available

to them through donations and the Governor's Fund, which was established to

accept monetary donations for disaster victims and put nearly $300,000

under SARIN's control.

More than 60 families or individuals received assistance through SARIN

after filling out applications. Another 40 applications are on file as some

people continue dealing with insurance adjusters to see what gets covered.

Everyone listed on application forms received $300 for winter clothes and

families with children received $200 per child to cover school clothing.

SARIN's fingerprints can be found on many of the 20 homes under

construction. Mennonite Disaster Assistance and Lutheran Disaster

Response are among other faith-based groups who directed work crews and efforts

to aid the building boom.

For Rocky Kirby, the homes are a welcome site. After all, Spencer is going

to need people to fill the community center and churches and utilize the

city hall, library and shopping center -- all of which are being rebuilt.

Of the 320 people in the Spencer area affected by the tornado, Kirby

estimates anywhere from one-half to two-third of them are coming back. For

those returning, Spencer is the only place they call home, he added.

The tornado ripped apart material goods that took years of hard work to buy

and build -- Kirby's family lost a $1 million grain elevator business. But

it's the irreplaceable goods that are important, he said. "We've got our

whole family still intact and that's what counts," Kirby said.

Going into the winter, housing remains a huge unmet need, said Dickson,

noting that openings at a yet unfinished 12-unit apartment building filled

as soon as its plans were announced. He is thankful that other

organizations' efforts are helping stretch SARIN's dollars, such as the

Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the Salvation Army and local turkey

growers donating a turkey to each family who survived the tornado.

"We've received some really good responses from folks," he said. "They're

starting to come back together and make Spencer the community that will be

their home."

Posted Nov. 28, 1998

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