Seven teenagers in St. Gabriel Church’s youth group found themselves unexpectedly aiding people affected by the March 2 tornadoes that struck Eastern Kentucky. And they are still a bit shaken by the experience.
They drove into hard-hit Salyersville just hours after tornadoes leveled parts of the town and other communities in the area. What they saw on the morning of March 3 is “burned into my mind,” said Cole Denham, a senior at St. Xavier High School.
He and several others who were on the trip — including Phillip Miller, Virginia Ku-chenbrod, Tanner Thieneman, Tyler Frederick and Jeff Aerne — recounted their experience during a youth group meeting Sunday night, March 11, at St. Gabriel.
They were disapointed on the afternoon of March 2 when their trip to Auxier, Ky., was delayed because of bad weather. They had planned to travel to Hand in Hand Ministries’ Auxier Center, where they were scheduled to do some work. The center hosts service trips for groups of students and adults from many of the archdiocese’s schools and churches.
The teens from St. Gabriel — who take a service trip to the center every year during spring break — were supposed to help the center prepare for the spring season.
At 5 a.m. on March 3, unaware that tornadoes had leveled parts of Eastern Kentucky, the youth group left Louisville, bound for Auxier.
Their route took them down the Mountain Parkway. As they came around a bend at Salyersville, Ky. —where the group always stops for food and a bathroom break — they saw their first glimpse of devastation.
The Subway restaurant where they have eaten in the past was gone. A battered Wendy’s restaurant had a truck parked in the lot with a sign that said “free food.” A Shell gas station — where the youth group took shelter last year during a tornado warning — was badly damaged. The “S” in its sign was gone, too, and left the remaining letters to describe what they were driving into.
The teens recall that sign as a symbol of the devastation.
“It’s stuck in my mind,” said Cole. “Everytime I close my eyes, I see that image (of destruction in Salyersville). The ‘hell’ sign explains it for me.”
Such destruction, he said, “definitely makes me want to be more close to God. I saw an interview (on TV) with one lady who said she was thankful because she was alive. I don’t think I could feel thankful. But they’re (survivors) being faithful. So I’ve got to be faithful.”
From Salyersville, the group took detour after detour —carrying them through the destruction — as they tried to make their way around closed roads to Auxier. With the help of a GPS device, they finally arrived —only to find the center deserted.
It was untouched by tornadoes, but the couple who co-direct the center, James and Allyson Williams, had gone to look for their family members living in nearby West Liberty, which was also hit by the storms. The St. Gabriel group, familiar with the center, decided to go ahead and start their work. Other adult volunteers from St. Edward Church — who had been out for breakfast — arrived soon after. The volunteers spent Saturday trying to keep things at the center running as normal.
On Sunday, they had a chance to aid survivors. The teens spent the morning creating care packages from food in the center’s food pantry and water and other items in the center’s storage areas. They created 37 bags containg granola bars, jugs of water, shampoo and other things.
The group is already scheduled to return during spring break — as they do each year. They said they’re anxious to return.
“This group of kids, they’re so compassionate,” said Patrick Lynch, the youth minister at St. Gabriel. “They’re passionate about helping people. The pain we’re feeling is not so much about the damage to the homes. It’s about the people who lived there.”
In particular, “we’re all concerned about the people we’ve helped in the past,” Lynch said.
Jeff Aerne, a sophomore at St. Xavier High School, noted that many of the people who live in the area were struggling before the storms.
“These people already had hard lives,” Jeff said. “They didn’t need this.”
One student noticed that it will have been 40 days from the day they saw the destruction to the day they’ll return to the area during spring break to aid in relief work. Spring break begins on Easter Monday. And the students expect the Easter mystery — the idea of life, death and resurrection — will be easy to understand this year.
“If this was our only trip, we’d be processing this for a long time,” Lynch said of the March 3-4 trip. “But we get to go back. During Lent, we will process (the experience). It will be our own little Easter when we go back and see that things have progressed.”
Tyler Frederick, a junior at Trinity High School, said that image — of life, death and resurrection — has never been more clear to him. And his experience in Eastern Kentucky has changed him.
“It is indescribable how it changed me,” he said. “I can relate so much more to these people. I’ve seen it in person.”
He has taken part in several service trips, he noted, but in the past he was there because he liked the work, not because he wanted to serve someone. The next trip will be different, he said.
“We can really help people,” Tyler said. “We can help them rebuild their lives. I’m really looking forward to helping someone.”