On the evening of May 28, 2019, a series of tornadoes touched down in heavily populated areas of Dayton, Ohio. The Salvation Army’s Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center rushed in to support the devastated community.
Some six months later, and as winter approaches, blue tarps covering the rooftops of damaged homes are still visible from Interstate 75.
The small community in western Ohio suffered a tumultuous 2019. Just days before the tornadoes, The Ku Klux Klan tried unsuccessfully to hold a rally. In August, a mass shooter killed 10 people and injured 27.
However, it was the tornadoes and ensuing recovery effort that mobilized the Salvation Army’s Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center.
Through it all, volunteers say the community pulled together like never before; neighbor helped neighbor and strangers became friends.
Debbie Harvey, the human resources manager at the Kroc Center, said she pulled into a Kroger supermarket for gas during the height of the tornado relief effort and struck up a conversation with a stranger.
“We started talking and this man said, ‘The people I worry about are the unsaved.’ I paused because I had just said the same thing at church the night before. I said, ‘You are absolutely right. I worry about that because the people who are saved have hope.’ He said, ‘Do you think we could have a moment of prayer?’ I kid you not, we held hands and we had prayer right there at the gas pump,” Harvey said.
“That’s never happened to me before. The community here has really come together.”
Major Gayle Senak, associate administrator of the Kroc Center, said the corps set aside specific prayer times for the various events, but the sermons have focused on the “idea of community.”
“That’s really how we’ve looked at this, along with the question of how do we deal with individuals who are hurting? People have been impacted by the tornadoes and from the shootings, whether it’s emotionally or in practical ways,” she said.
“How do we reach out? It doesn’t always have to be the Church or The Salvation Army or the Kroc Center. It’s really, how do we as individuals reach out to neighbors who we know are hurting? It’s been amazing to see how our people have wanted to help.”
The Kroc Center sent out four canteens for 12 days to several affected neighborhoods, where some 1,200 homes were damaged. Volunteers distributed food, water, cleaning supplies, gift cards, and more. The teams also met spiritual and emotional needs.
“No one hesitated to get on those trucks, and no one hesitated to get out of those trucks and walk those neighborhoods,” said Harvey, who served on a canteen. “I’ve never been prouder to work with a group of people. Everybody—it didn’t matter what their job—was focused on answering the question, What can we do and how can we do it best?
“There was an overwhelming sense of awe. There were tears. We tried to offer prayer whenever possible, but people were just excited we were out there, and they wanted an opportunity to share their story. It was more about doing a lot of listening.”
Harvey said every food box given out to tornado survivors included a Bible.
“We also had Bibles on our truck,” she said. “We shared those with everyone who wanted one and we never came back with a Bible.”
Many of the neighborhoods hit—some less than a mile from the Kroc Center—were in low–income areas where people let their home insurance lapse. One of the tornadoes was rated an EF4 with wind speeds up to 170 mph.
“It looked like a bomb had gone off,” Harvey said. “In some areas there wasn’t a single home left.”
Tim Erlandson, the Kroc Center’s business administrator, lives outside Dayton and was initially unaware of the severity of the storm. He went out on one of the first canteens to assess the damage and was shocked.
“It looked like a war zone, like something had exploded and leveled everything around it,” he said. “It was surreal, but became very real.At that point, it was not a picture on a TV. It was my experience.
“Part of the reason I came to The Salvation Army was because of its compassion for people. At that moment, people were in need and it was a big deal. I knew they didn’t have the ability to take care of everything themselves because it was just too much. Our attitude became, We can do it. We have the capabilities and the desire to help, so let’s go out and help them.”
Among the volunteers were Jim and Karen Fry, soldiers at the Kroc Center who are retired and in their 60s. The couple got emotional describing the kindness they saw in the midst of tragedy.
“It’s just a great experience to be out there and to help the people and help our neighbors,” Jim said. “I’ve never seen first–hand how a whole neighborhood could come together. Everybody was just helping everybody. I saw people pull out their wallets to help somebody. Some of them sat in front of what was their house, which was gone, and yet they were helping other people.
“I’ve had neighbors who would help out and so forth, but this was far beyond neighborly. These were people helping people. I couldn’t count the number of times somebody just stopped and wanted to pray.”
Karen said while the couple’s home was spared, they saw many people they knew socially who weren’t so fortunate.
“They were happy to see that someone cared enough to come out and help them,” Karen said. “They appreciated the help. We had so many people comment and say, ‘Thank you. You’re the first people we’ve seen out here.’ It was special to know that we were doing this for God’s people. It was such a small task on our part, but for them it was everything.”
Jim said volunteers were forced to carry food into some neighborhoods because the roads were blocked by fallen trees, debris, and power lines. Taylor Senak, a soldier at the Kroc Center who works in the recreation department, drove an all–terrain vehicle (ATV) to deliver water, food, and supplies.
“The ATV allowed us to reach the areas that couldn’t be reached with the canteen or van,” Senak said. “We had to climb over trees and downed power lines. Streets were completely blocked and that motivated us to really get back there and help the people get some food and water.
“It really was a great benefit for us. We were able to give out the most food because we could quickly go door–to–door.”
Erin May, who also works in the recreation department at the center, said it was her first experience in disaster relief. Her attitude was, “What can I do to help?”
“The blessing of working here at The Salvation Army is—we help people. This is literally what we do,” May said. “I remember going up the highway and seeing the destruction for the first time. My heart instantly sank. But once I started working with the people, I realized how thankful they were that we were there to help them. It was just an amazing feeling.
“I don’t really like to smile during a bad situation like that, but that’s what the people needed to see. If they asked for prayer, we prayed with them, and we were just a comfort to them.”
Ready to go
Barb Hartley, who has been a senior soldier for50 years, works in support services at the Kroc Center. She also went out on a canteen into neighborhoods where she grew up and knew the people well.
“I think anybody who’s a part of the Army so because they have that sense of caring for people,” Hartley said. “They want to help others. It always amazes me how we’re always there and usually the first ones on site. My first thought Monday night, after this all happened, was When are we going out?”
Hartley went door–to–door to check on people, including two elderly women in a home.
“One of the women said, ‘I need prayer right now. My mother is dying.’ I had the privilege of praying with her and her mother. That was such an honor to get to do something like that,” Hartley said.
Jetawn Ruggs, a finance manager at the center and who worked on a canteen, also knew some of the victims.
“It was heartbreaking. I was glad to be able to do something to help,” she said. “It takes a special kind of person to be there mentally and spiritually for someone else when they’re also affected. It’s difficult at times to be there for others and be strong when I’m going through things myself. I have to pray for that strength to be able to inspire someone else. Having that experience with others helped me to cope and to get through it because it was devastating. That inspiration was uplifting for everyone.”
Kim Tufts, a receptionist and soldier at the Kroc Center, had Emergency Disaster Servicestraining and was excited to put it to use on a canteen.
“I just wanted to take all of these people and hug them,” she said.
Her team shared hugs, offered gift cards, and plenty of prayer.
“Sometimes the prayer made all the difference,” Tufts said. “Some of the people were shocked and overwhelmed about what was happening. It’s nice to have someone with a calm nature to pray with them and then they end up feeling better. I took the chance to do a little witnessing and invited them to church.”
Meanwhile, Tina Tacket, who works in accounts payable, was on a canteen for the first time.
“It was sad, it was surreal, and it was hard to believe that it happened here in our hometown,” she said. “What struck me is how grateful everyone was. They had lost everything, and they were just grateful for food. It was sad.
“I talked to people who just wanted to tell their story and they needed a hug. We’re a community and we just came together. It’s a good feeling. You see it even now. We’re united.”
‘We’re just givers’
Stacie Kubera, member services manager at the Kroc Center who served on a canteen, said the devastation was “overwhelming,” but it could have been worse. A twister had headed toward Dayton Children’s Hospital before it turned left and hit warehouses instead.
“That was the hand of God,” she said.
“We did have a personal connection with people,” Kubera said. “I wanted to bring them all home. We used the situation as a tool to bring people to the gospel or to Jesus, but I’ve always believed in serving in a practical way. When we were out and about, it was just that. We’re just givers here at the Kroc Center.”
The power was out for several days after the storm. During the first few days, even the Kroc Center operated on a generator.
That week, Lydia Ward, an education technology specialist at the center, organized a “technology cart.” It had computers, laptops, and tablets in a “cooling center” for people escaping the heat.
“We just wanted them to get their minds off everything,” she said. “What motivated me was the thought that they could have been me. My second thought was What can I do to help all of the people around me who are hurt?
“It was a terrible thing that happened, but it brought together so many people spiritually.”
On the night of the shootings, Ward was at dinner in the Oregon District. She felt the Holy Spirit tell her to leave. She and a friend dined a few blocks away. They later saw police cars, ambulances, and victims fleeing the scene.
“What I saw I won’t ever be able to get out of my head,” she said. “I was led and guided by God not to stay. Whatever assignment He has for me, He has purposed me for something greater than myself.”
Kip Moore, the program manager at the Kroc Center, found himself working the day after the tornadoes—on his birthday.
“That was a life–changer and a unique and different birthday,” Moore said. “My focus turned to other people. Someone said, ‘I’m sorry you have to work.’ I said, ‘I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday than helping other people.’”
Better days ahead
Despite a rough 2019, Hartley is among those people who see a bright future for her city.
“Dayton’s had a really hard year,” she said. “This year gave me more insight into how good people can be. I saw so much of that when we were out. I saw people on the corner grilling because their meat was going to go bad and they were grilling for their whole neighborhood. I’ve lived in Dayton my entire life and I’ve never seen anything like that—ever.
“I can’t help but think that something really good will come from all of this.”
Hartley said the devil tries to bring pain because a blessing is on the way for her city, an observation shared by several others.
“I think what the devil meant for evil, God is going to turn it around for good,” said Ward. “I feel like these events got our attention and showed us that we are all the same. We all can love, and we all do want the same thing.
“It showed me that, regardless of what happens, God is there. It doesn’t matter how bad it is, God is there. With destruction, there is beauty. He turned clay into something marvelous. He turned ashes into beauty. There’s always going to be a brighter day.”
by Robert Mitchell