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Disaster Volunteering: "It Makes You a Changed Person"

courtesy Krachel Greenwood

It’s been almost six weeks since an EF5 tornado ripped through the city of Moore, Oklahoma.  The tornado was more than two miles wide, with winds estimated at 210 miles per hour, and it killed 23 people and injured almost 400.

It also destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in the area. 

Since then, people in Moore have been trying to recover – to cope with both the physical and emotional toll the storm has taken.  Thousands of volunteers from relief agencies have been on the ground in Oklahoma since the disaster, including many from Wisconsin.

Krachel Greenwood is one of those volunteers – she works in electronic communication for the Salvation Army's Wisconsin and Upper Michigan division.  Greenwood was deployed to Oklahoma to chronicle the efforts of the organization's workers after the tornado.  

She and Service Extension Director Tom Thuecks say the work helped the lives of people in Moore, but is life-changing for volunteers, as well.

Greenwood recalls standing with a man and his family in the middle of a field which formerly contained the family's home.  

"They lived in a trailer," she says, "and their trailer was turned inside out, like a tin can – and the belongings of their home were strewn across this field – and watching him and seeing the desperation in his eyes was an image I’ll never forget."

It was the first disaster of this scale that Greenwood has worked on.  Thuecks says the organization's work, which often includes feeding victims of a disaster - and the workers helping - also includes making sure their own volunteers are prepared for the reality of the disaster scene.  

"We will not deploy any volunteers unless they've gone through our formal training," he says.  

"You can only prepare them to a point, and then it's up to the individual." - Tom Thuecks

He says volunteers will often be given the first 24 hours of their deployment to adjust, before being put to work.  That was the case when he was sent to New York City following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, and with Greenwood's trip to Oklahoma.

Thuecks says an underrated part of his and other organizations' missions is providing emotional support to victims of disasters like the Oklahoma tornadoes, or even a smaller tragedy, like the death of a student in a car accident.  It's an understanding that he's slowly gained through the years.

"They always said, 'Well, we'll have counselors at the schools,' and I often thought, 'I wonder how many people are actually seeing this counselor'," he says.  "I have a whole different perspective since I've started working in disasters."

Credit Krachel Greenwood, Salvation Army
Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma, was destroyed by a tornado in May.

Greenwood says her experiences talking with both volunteers and tornado victims also changed her perspective.  While deployed to Oklahoma, her accommodations in a college dormitory seemed less spartan than they might have, were it not for what she was seeing every day.

"It did rearrange my thought process in a very quick manner," she explains.  "At the end of the night, you come back to look at that sleeping bag, and it looked like a little piece of heaven, to have a sleeping bag on top of a nice mattress to crawl into."