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Local groups provide aid to Oklahoma storm victims

Jill Weeks said she still remembers exactly what it was like to stand in the middle of the debris and rubble that used to be her home.

Weeks and her husband, Eric, lost everything on April 27, 2011, when the E-F5 tornado tore through the small community of East Franklin and destroyed many homes and lives in its path.

Weeks said she could remember feeling so helpless, not knowing exactly what to do – until help came.

“There were so many people in the community who came to help us when we needed it, but we also had people from across the country coming into the area to help us,” Weeks said.

“It was overwhelming to see how much people cared, even people who were complete strangers.”

Weeks said people associated with the company she works for also came to her aid all the way from Arkansas.

“There were people that my company works with who had discovered that my home had been destroyed and wanted to help,” she said.

“They took up money to send to me and my family and it was such a big help to us. I told my husband then that if I ever had the chance to give back, I wanted to make sure I took that chance.”

Weeks got her chance on May 20 as she watched the news of a devastating E-F5 tornado, very similar to the one that ravaged Phil Campbell and East Franklin, tear through the suburb of Moore, Okla.

“I saw all the damage and destruction and the reports of people who had lost everything they had and my heart just broke for them,” Weeks said.

“When I told my husband I wanted to help in some way or even go up there to help, he immediately said ‘Let’s go. We’ll go up there to help.’”

Weeks said the preparation for the trip took a little over a week. In that time, she called many other friends, family and community members to tell them about the upcoming relief trip to Moore and to see if they wanted to help.

“People were immediately jumping on board,” she said.

“We are a small, tight-knit community and we all know someone who was affected by what happened here on April 27. Some people were willing to go on the trip with us and others who couldn’t physically go wanted to help by donating supplies or money.”

In addition to Jill and Eric Weeks, fellow East Franklin residents Gary Cummings, Jr., Chris Nix, Shane and Elisha Mansell, and Lyle and Dana Garrison signed up for the 600-mile trip to Moore.

By the time the group left on Thursday, May 30, they had collected nearly $5,000 in cash and close to $5,000 in supplies from community members, churches and businesses in the area.

“There were five people who work for my company who lived in Moore and lost everything in the tornado, so our first priority was to make sure we got them the help they needed,” Weeks said.

When they got to Moore on Friday morning, Cummings said they met up with those five people first before they went to offer aid elsewhere.

“You can really tell by talking to Jill how much it touched her to have people in her company help her and her family two years ago, so this was a big deal to her for us to help these people,” he said.

“We met up with them on Friday and were able to give them financial assistance as well as some needed items and supplies that they had been doing without.”

Cummings said just being able to help those five people get back on their feet was amazing, but all the other people and situations they encountered during the trip made him realize how important it was that the group from East Franklin had come to help.

“I can’t tell you how many times God just put someone in our path that really needed our help,” Cummings said.

“After helping Jill’s co-workers, we took the money and supplies we had left and began to look for people who needed our help and just trusted that God would lead us in the right direction.

“We were having some trouble with our van so we stopped at an O’Reilly Auto Parts store and ended up meeting a woman named Mary who saw our van and came out just to thank us for coming all the way from Alabama to help their community.

“As we talked to her, we ended up finding out that she had lost her home in the tornado and had been relocated 50 miles away from her job.

“We were able to help her financially and then exchanged phone numbers so she could send us a picture of the destruction around her home.”

Weeks said little did they know that their act of kindness would wind up being repaid in a big way later that day.

“Our group was staying with relatives of ours in Moore and they had told us the weather was supposed to get bad later that day and for us to be careful,” Weeks said.

“Awhile after we had been able to help Mary at the auto parts store, she called us and said that there were tornadoes being predicted and we needed to get as far south as we could.”

With a group of people who had all seen or directly experienced the devastating effects of a tornado firsthand, Weeks said they took the warning from their new friend seriously and started heading south.

“It was scary and really tense for awhile because you never know what the weather is going to do or where a tornado could go, but we had faith that God would take care of us.”

Cummings said the group wound up about 40 miles south of Moore in a town called Purcell, Okla.

“We were able to ride out the storm there, but we were running from it the whole way,” Cummings said.

“The radio station we were listening to called it a ‘tornado emergency,’ which is something I’ve never heard before so that got us all pretty scared.

“It’s just a blessing that Mary called us when she did because we had enough time to get to safety and not be gridlocked on the road with other people trying to leave.

“We wanted to help her and she ended up really helping us.”

Weeks said they were finally able to make it back to Moore that night and, even though they were shook up, the group decided they needed to stay and finish the work they came there to do.

“We knew we were there to do the Lord’s work and He would provide for us and keep us safe,” she said. “We had a lot of support from home and people calling to say they were praying for us, so we decided to stay and continue helping.”

Weeks said the group visited the site of the elementary school in Moore that was destroyed and saw the surrounding neighborhoods were the homes were completely leveled.

“It was very emotional to be there,” she said.

“The sight of the destruction and even the smell of things like mold and mildew from all the rain-soaked debris just brought back a flood of memories.

“But even though it was emotional, it was more like a healing process for us. We saw all this damage and destruction, but this time, we were the ones who we there to help and offer aid. That was a great feeling.”

Cummings said while the group was there, they were able to help many other families with financial contributions or donations of supplies. They also helped some people move furniture or other items that had to be taken from the damaged homes.

“It was such a blessing to get to go on this trip and allow the Lord to use us and the generosity of our community to help others who are going through the same things we all went through,” Cumming said.

“Not one minute of our time was wasted – it was all spent doing something for someone else – and not one penny or supply was wasted either.

“I am very thankful to the people in this group for organizing and going on this trip and to our community, families and friends who made it possible. It really made a difference in many people’s lives.”