Volunteers Organize Two-Day Distribution Event for Tornado Relief in Dawson Spring, Kentucky

Midwest  |  February 28, 2022
The two-day event had lines of beneficiaries waiting to receive emergency aid from Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Kevin Lin

Written by Maggie Morgan

With offices dispersed across the globe, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation is able to meet people where they are, when they need it most. As suffering strikes in its many forms, our teams can tackle crises head on and within an emergency time frame. 

The Dec. 10 and Dec. 11 tornado spree that swept across the U.S.’ Midwest took the nation by surprise; the low probability of this type of storm occurring in December falls somewhere between 12-15%, making this natural disaster one of only 22 that have occurred in this time frame since 1879. While the unpredictability of the tornado outbreak played a large role in preparedness, no one can ever be truly prepared for a natural disaster of these proportions. 

From Dec. 10 to Dec. 18, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration logged 61 tornadoes that traveled more than 100 miles across eight states including Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Georgia, Ohio and Indiana. Reports show the windstorms were responsible for taking the lives of more than 80 people, caused countless injuries, and destroyed entire communities. 

People lost their homes, their jobs, and ultimately their stability. Tzu Chi’s Midwestern Regional Offices reacted right away, planning distribution events in several impacted areas and partnering with other humanitarian aid organizations to expedite the process. 

Tzu Chi USA’s most recent installment of emergency aid was held from Feb. 26 to Feb. 27 at the Dawson Springs High School in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. The two-part event ensured that more tornado survivors would be able to access the resources at the distribution. Accompanied by Executive Director, Chong Hsieh, volunteers handed out $1,000 cash cards to severely-impacted families who needed immediate financial aid.  

Before allocating resources and preparing for distribution, the Tzu Chi USA team conducted an analysis of the damage and the severity of the impacted communities’ situations. The Tzu Chi team of six traveled to Dawson Springs on Feb. 11 where they met with Dawson Springs city officials and representatives of the American Red Cross to discuss preliminary relief and begin forming a plan. Chris Smiley, Mayor of Dawson Springs, expounded on the destruction that volunteers had witnessed first-hand since arriving in the city

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Entire communities were destroyed and left a desolate, heartbreaking atmosphere for survivors to take in after the storm. The two-day distribution event provided comfort and solace in an environment that felt anything but secure.

The Mayor said, “approximately 3/4 of the buildings were destroyed by the tornado. There were more than 600 houses in the city that had been completely destroyed or half-destroyed, and 1/3 of the city’s residents were low-income households.” It was clear that not only was aid in high demand, but the work needed to get underway as soon as possible.

The first day of distributions was a major success, benefitting 312 households totaling 1,110 individuals. Care recipients were notified through text message to arrive at Dawson Springs High School. Tzu Chi USA partnered with the American Red Cross to compile a list of survivors in need who were then promptly informed of the event. Murray State’s NPR station, WKMS, helped spread the word about the event to their audiences. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and its mission were new to many of the recipients who were surprised at the love and care shown by volunteers. 

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The disaster relief distribution events brought in hundreds of families over the two-day period, many of them becoming emotional upon receiving emergency aid from Tzu Chi volunteers.

Stacy Freudendahl and her family were among the masses of people who came seeking help. After the event, Stacy sent Tzu Chi volunteers a message to reiterate her sincere gratitude for their assistance.

I just wanted to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts! We had the pleasure of meeting some of the volunteers today in Dawson Springs, Kentucky and received a $1000.00 dollar gift card. To some, this may not seem like much, but to us who lost everything, it was a lot. We appreciate you! This money will be used to replace some of the things we lost! Again, thank you.

The decision to make the distribution a two-day event proved to be the right choice as an additional 123 households arrived for the second installment on Feb. 27. The newest arrivals brought total attendance up to 435 households, totalling an estimated $435,000 in emergency assistance. Care recipient, Vicky Heamby, remarked on how many kind faces she smiled back at during the event. Having lost her home to the windstorm, Vicky, who is currently housing insecure, said being helped by Tzu Chi truly matters to her.

[Tzu Chi] gives me a lot of hope and courage to know that there are still people in this world who care about the suffering of others.

Vicky Heamby
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Tzu Chi’s Relief After Tornadoes

Tzu Chi’s disaster-specific initiative, Relief After Tornadoes, plunges into the wreckage left behind by twisters and helps survivors build their lives back from the ground up. Our hard working teams have experience with surveying disaster areas, putting together assessments, and joining with municipalities and our partner organizations, like the American Red Cross, to implement emergency relief distribution events. 

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s clearly outlined mission and philosophies further the deeply profound impact of these community events, bringing together humans from all walks of life to celebrate today and foster hope for tomorrow. The most recent event in Dawson Springs gathered team members from near and far as locals collaborated with volunteers from outside of the state. Some volunteers were recipients themselves, hailing from Mayfield, Paducah, and Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Other volunteers traveled from as far as Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and St. Louis, Missouri to help support the distribution. 

In addition to emergency monetary aid for families, Tzu Chi volunteers provided essential care items on-site to instill a sense of security in those who have lost everything to the windstorm. Relief After Tornadoes funded the weekend event, and thanks to an anonymous sponsor, the effort now matches donations made up to $1 million until March 2022.

In order to catch up with the high demand of those in need, Tzu Chi USA will be fervently collecting donations, organizing community events, and working with municipalities and partner organizations to deliver aid as soon as possible. It is important to stay well-informed on how to act swiftly in the event of a tornado, and to research as much as you can about rebuilding life while dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster. However, we must join together and continue to act on behalf of individuals who are starting their lives over, simply trying to make things work in their day-to-day lives. 

Not only are survivors from the Dec. 2021 tornadoes still picking up the pieces, but new storms are continuing to roll in and wreaking more havoc on the Midwestern United States. Violent tornadoes hit Madison County, Iowa on Saturday, March 5, and killed at least six people including two children under 5 years old. It’s expected that more powerful storms will touch down in the Midwest and the South as the week goes on. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s Relief After Tornadoes is a constant effort that needs continual support from compassionate donors. 

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