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Judson U. group lends a hand in wake of tornado-ravaged town

Volunteers from JudsUniversity remove debris earlier this month from where tornado turned house inpile lumber WashingtIll. | Submitted

Volunteers from Judson University remove debris earlier this month from where a tornado turned a house into a pile of lumber in Washington, Ill. | Submitted

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Updated: January 28, 2014 6:13AM

ELGIN — For 31 people from Judson University, the spirit of the Christmas season included the joy of helping people they had never met before bounce back from some of the harshest pain nature can mete out.

The 27 students and four adult leaders from the Elgin-based Christian university spent Dec. 15-17 in the Peoria area, helping victims of the tornado that hit Washington, Ill., in November. They were led by Chris Lash, Judson’s director of university ministries.

“When disaster strikes in areas outside of our own hometowns, sometimes it’s hard to sympathize or simply understand the extent of loss because it doesn’t feel relatable,” said Jamie Galen, a freshman from Carol Stream who is majoring in Christian ministry. “Seeing the destruction of these homes so near to our homes firsthand, though, was a real eye-opener.”

Arriving the night of Dec. 15 aboard two vans and several private cars, the volunteers stayed in a Peoria church near Washington.

On Dec. 16, half the group went to the disaster site, where they helped to clean up debris that can still be found in piles all over the destruction zone. The other half went to the New Hope Distribution Center, a warehouse set up in a vacant strip mall in nearby Sunnyland. There they helped organized piles of donated food, clothing and supplies, and helped tornado victims pick them up.

On the second day, all drove to the tornado site to clean up wreckage.

“We only had one Dumpster for the debris, and we filled that up within two hours,” Galen said.

So they finished the day working in another relief distribution center, run by the Peoria Catholic Charities.

“The group working at the distribution center on the first day hadn’t seen any of the destruction yet,” Galen said. “So it was hard for us to relate to what we were doing there,” Galen said. “Then we traveled to Washington and it was hard to imagine that what we saw was real.

“It was easy to see the path the tornado had torn through the town,” Galen said. “Along that line, houses were just torn off the foundations or left in a pile of debris. At the edge of the tornado path, you’d see houses with one wall torn off.”

Yet the storm sometimes seemed arbitrary and its impact hard to explain. “We found a glass bowl that hadn’t been broken,” Galen recalled.

At one home, only the floor had been left above the foundation and a chair was sitting on that floor, as if sitting on a stage. The crew members didn’t know for sure whether the chair had been left that way by the tornado or whether someone had come along later and set the chair there.

Galen said Natalie Salawage, an Americorp member who has been assigned to work at the New Hope Donation Center, told her that “it’s one of those things that you always see on TV elsewhere and then you see it here and it’s almost impossible to believe. It’s crazy.”

“We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers in,” Salawage told Galen. “When I counted last week, we had more than 1,000 people come through the donation center, but that was only since we started keeping track on the 27th, which was 10 full days after the tornado.”

Salawage said the youngest volunteer at the donation center was 3 and the oldest has been a man who has come back several times from a few hours away who is 92 years old.

“There’s something for everyone to do, and it’s been incredible what people are willing to do to help,” Salawage told Galen.

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