MADISONVILLE, Kentucky — While Christ the King Parish in Madisonville did not suffer damage from the tornadoes that struck western Kentucky during the night of Dec. 10, the people impacted were “friends, neighbors and co-workers” of parishioners, said Christ the King’s pastor, Father Carl McCarthy.
The day after the storms, Madisonville North Hopkins High School senior Camryn LaGrange spoke at Christ the King’s Saturday night vigil Mass Dec. 11.
The teen invited her fellow parishioners to join her in aiding the suffering members of their western Kentucky community. People started volunteering immediately.
LaGrange, who had organized other teen service projects in the past, helped transform Christ the King Catholic School’s gym into a community resource center. Staff of both the parish and Christ the King’s elementary school brought together an efficient system to provide clothing, mattresses, generators, toiletries and other essentials.
LaGrange recruited many of her classmates to organize and distribute items.
“It’s the people who have made this amazing,” LaGrange said in a Dec. 15 interview with The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.
Three months later, tornado recovery is far from over, many people are still waiting to hear from their insurance and/or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the parish has evolved from operating immediate assistance out of its gym to connecting people with specific needs to slowly rebuild their lives.
Lesley Mills, principal of Christ the King Catholic School, has been a part of the tornado recovery efforts from the beginning while maintaining her role with her active school community.
She and her sister-in-law, Rhonda Mills, are on a team that works with tornado survivors currently living in cottages or campers at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
The park had opened its property to displaced people who had nowhere else to go after their homes were lost or severely damaged in the storms. Naturally, the long-term goal is to resettle these families and individuals elsewhere, but repairing and rebuilding homes takes time, money and skilled labor.
Plus, camping season is nearly here and tourists will soon be flocking to the park.
“To date, about 56 people are still living at Pennyrile (out of the original 125),” said Lesley Mills. She added that the campground itself is at capacity with eight campers on its property.
As people move to new housing — “mostly temporary housing” — they are provided with essential home items, Lesley Mills said, like furniture, bedding and household goods such as vacuums and kitchen items.
McCarthy said that as of March 16, Christ the King Parish itself had received a total of $132,911.63 in monetary donations from both parishioners and people around the country to help resettle survivors.
Rhonda Mills, who with her husband has been hosting Mass at their home for the people of tornado-damaged Resurrection Church in Dawson Springs not far from Madisonville, said the tornado relief team is trying to “help people set up with basic needs.”
“As houses are starting to be built, we are shifting to different roles,” said Rhonda Mills. She has a “thick notebook of clients” needing assistance, and calls them every two weeks to check on them.
She said if her clients call her in need of something she personally cannot access, she reaches out to her wider pool of resources to connect the person with help.
“It’s a community group effort, but it’s very time-consuming,” she said, adding that even in Kentucky, not to mention the wider nation, many people have either forgotten about the tornadoes or believe everything has gone back to normal.
“But we are still just flattened,” she said.
Lesley Mills said the local chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been accumulating and distributing sets of household items for families as they are resettled in temporary residences “while they are waiting for FEMA or insurance to give them the funds to start building their houses.”
This way, “we’ll be able to supply their home and get them up and moving again without having to dip into their funds,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy also is appreciative of Owensboro Bishop William F. Medley’s support of their parish’s endeavors.
“He said people would continue knocking at the door of the Catholic Church (for assistance),” said McCarthy, adding that the bishop “continues to bless us” with his encouragement.
“We’re just a neighboring church that’s trying to help out,” said McCarthy.
Rhonda Mills said the experience of the tornadoes has “really brought people together. The tornado has impacted everyone in this community.”
She said she even watches the news differently and has more empathy for those who are going through other crises: “This happened to a lot of people and we will be a lot more conscious and aware (of other peoples’ pain) because we’ve gone through it.”
Lesley Mills said the “outpouring of love and generosity” from outsiders “has been wonderful.”
“I’m also thankful that I am able to help my hometown to get the immediate assistance that they need,” she said.
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Barnstead is editor of The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.