Life in Perspective

-by Brittany Merriman

When the EF2 Tornado hit Malden, Missouri, I was laying in my bed sick. I had bronchitis - something I am plagued with every year - and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. My teammates deployed to the small town on a Tuesday, a few days after the incident. I was asked to go if I was feeling better, but I declined, still wallowing (I like to wallow, it's a skill).

I got a call from my supervisor saying that they were out of options. Myself and my fellow Fellow (ha!) were direly needed, because Kelley and Julian - my teammates already in Malden - had some prior engagements over the next few days, and they really couldn't break them. I reluctantly agreed (wallowing). Will and I made the 3-hour drive down to Southern Missouri on a brisk Wednesday morning. I fell asleep on the way down, leaving Will to drive the long lonely stretches of Missouri country roads by himself. (I told you, the wallowing thing is a skill of mine.) 

The plan was that Kelley would leave Thursday, Julian and Will would leave Friday, and I would leave Saturday. We realized we needed another person to stay with me until Saturday, so we asked for a volunteer from the team returning to St. Louis after a 6-week deployment to Hurricane Irma in Florida. Andy, a first year, stepped up. The teams met in a small town along Highway 55 on Thursday, and Kelley and Andy swapped places.

When Will and I arrived, we honestly didn't have much to do. We were introduced to a few people, but our part in the disaster didn't rev up until the next day when Kelley headed back to St. Louis. Thursday was a little slow, but eventually Will, Julian, Andy, and I settled into a routine. Julian handled the homeowner intake. I took lead on the volunteers - coordinating with our Field Team Leader, a local City Counselor who was busting his butt trying to return his hometown to normal. Andy and Will helped out with donations, food, and generally wielding tools and carrying things around. The Field Team would often go to Will for advice, and Andy spent most of his time carrying dollies upon dollies of bottled water to a harried-looking local volunteer who spearheaded the overflowing donations room. 

On Friday, we had a MARC. 

MARCs, or Multi-Agency Resource Centers, are hectic. They are where homeowners go to get all of the help they can in one place at one time. A "one stop shop" where the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, local churches, government organizations, and more all sit at tables and hand out monetary donations, give legal advice, and offer their services to disaster survivors. AmeriCorps St. Louis handles Survivor Intake at every MARC we attend - this means we are the first people the survivors talk to. We listen to their stories, log their information, and direct them to the appropriate resources.  It can be overwhelming for volunteers, even if they have participated in a MARC before. There tends to be a lot of emotion bottled into a small space.

During the MARC, I sat at a table and listened to people tell me about the damage they lived through because of a "small" tornado. One couple who lost their house had just had a baby leave the NICU. One elderly veteran couldn't clean his yard because he had lost his leg serving our country. 

"Can you describe the damage to your home for me?"
"Oh yes. It's completely gone." A young mother said that to me with a small smile. Nonchalant. 

I sat at this table for 8 hours, listening to people tell me about their problems. Every once in a while I could smell the bouquet of flowers sitting next to me; they had been donated by the local flower shop to "brighten up the day of the volunteers". Every time I caught a whiff of the carnations and daisies I couldn't help but smile. Meanwhile, the people in front of me ran the gambit of having lost everything they ever owned to only needing someone to come move a few tree limbs out of their front yard. 

Disasters put life into perspective. Maybe I should have lead with that revelation, but there it is. 

It's hard to wallow in your own illness, when you are faced with people who are so resilient and kind in the wake of devastation. Those flowers, for instance. No one needed them, not really; but they were a bright spot, donated by employees from local flower shop who cared enough to take the time and thought, "You know, this might make someone smile today" (It did). 

At the end of the MARC, the Field Team Leader - that local City Councilman, I spoke of - walked up to me with a 6-month old boy. I took the smiling infant gladly, warmed that I was trusted to handle something so precious by someone I had just met. The Councilman joked to his friend, "This is my work-wife over the next few days,” as I held his son. It was an appropriate title, as I had literally been calling and texting him several times an hour. We had become pretty good friends by then.

On Saturday before Andy and I left, we spent the day with people we had come to know pretty well over only three days (...days!?...). I corralled volunteers in the morning, firefighters and housewives and neighbors who told me over and over, "This could have been me. I just need to help." I saw kindness in ways I hadn't seen in a long time. People handing me money, anonymously, because others were in need. One firefighter walked up to a young boy who was wanting to volunteer and told him, "Here is money for some work gloves. We're going to get dirty today. When you're ready, you'll be with me." The boy looked ecstatic just to be able to help. His mother told me, "He's been wanting to do this since the tornado happened." (Andy, The Hero, spent his entire day driving around a man who had become homeless due to the storm; I'm told they spent the day getting clothing and eating a hot meal). 

Every time I get deployed to a new disaster, I have a new revelation about the amount of empathy the human heart is capable of feeling. I feel bad saying that I need to be pulled out of my own problems - especially because I have done this so often, in so many places. However, I think there is something special to be said about small-town disasters, where you know it will fly under the radar of the national news and FEMA. People come together in brand new ways, and it honestly is breathtaking. 

Sometimes you just need a reminder of what love and kindness looks like, I guess.