For decades, Madison residents and those in surrounding areas have donated their time and dollars to Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical non-denominational disaster relief organization.
Following the devastation of the May 12 derecho, residents got to recieve a bit of that help back.
Madison residents have regularly gotten together each Christmas season to package boxes to send to Operation Christmas Child, a ministry project of Samaritan’s Purse.
“I think my church has given to it a couple times,” Deb Blanchette said, “but I had never heard of Samaritan’s Purse.”
Blanchette has lived in the Madison area since 1979, but moved to a farm north of Madison with her husband Leo in 2003. Her property was hit hard by the derecho.
“We lost about 25 trees,” Blanchette said. But others had more than tree damage, she noted.
Retha Thrun had damage to her windows, roof and tree grove. One tree, in particular, that fell was planted by her late stepson.
Blanchette and Thrun were among the many Lake County residents who called 211, a free helpline that is available 24/7 which directs callers to services for various people, including the elderly, the disabled and those who don’t speak English.
“We utilized 211 as data collection,” Kody Keefer, the emergency manager for Lake County, said. “There’s a constantly updated list of folks with unmet needs who we put in contact with organizations that can help, like the Red Cross, Christian Aid Ministries and Samaritan’s Purse.”
The day after the storm, Samaritan’s Purse flew Program Manager for U.S. Disaster Relief Keeth Willingham to this area to assess the damage. Willingham made the recommendation to respond. According to him, this was the first time Samaritan’s Purse had responded in eastern South Dakota.
At any disaster area, Willingham calls area churches to ask if they could set up there as a base of operations. He went with Bethel Baptist in Brookings.
“As I was assessing, I saw quite a bit of damage in Brookings and Castlewood, so it seemed like a good central location,” said Willingham, a North Carolina native. He said they were focusing on the whole of Lake County and surrounding areas.
There were 25 to 30 volunteers at any one time. Some would volunteer for a few days and others volunteered the whole three weeks that Samaritan’s Purse was responding. They came from every corner of the country, and at one point, there were 15 states represented. Altogether, 81 people volunteered.
Then began the work to find people who needed help. Fliers, social media and the 211 line helped Willingham find leads.
According to Blanchette, she first got a call from Samaritan’s Purse on May 16, asking to come out and assess her damage.
“I thought it was a scam,” Blanchette said. “It seemed too good to be true.”
The next day, two inspectors came out to assess. For both Blanchette and Thrun, two days after their initial inspections, crews arrived.
Donning bright orange shirts, volunteers did temporary roof and siding repair, tree cleanup, and occasionally pulled out wet insulation. They brought their own equipment, including a skid-steer, large chain saw,and tree pruner. Two chaplains accompanied every crew to act as emotional support for storm victims.
The workers also went the extra mile for those they helped. They created a keepsake for Thrun out of her late stepson’s tree. They carved a heart into a stump at her son’s property.
How the volunteers genuinely wanted to be there for the storm victims was what amazed Blanchette and Thrun the most.
“They sat down with you and made a connection,” Blanchette said. “It was incredible.”
The crew would also give a Bible to each family they helped. Each member who helped that day would write a note and sign it on the inside. The cover of the Bible featured a cross with swirls around it.
“They told us that the symbol meant ‘comfort in the wake of the storm’,” Thrun said. “I think that’s very fitting.”
Depending on the amount of damage, crews were mostly able to clean up a property in a day or two. According to Keefer, they helped nearly 30 homeowners in the Madison area fix up their properties. However, they eventually had to leave.
“We stayed until the phones stopped ringing,” Willingham said. “Four days went by without a single request.”
Samaritan’s Purse then packed up their things and left Brookings on June 3. They will be going to wherever they are needed next in the United States.
“We do this in Jesus’ name,” Willingham added. “We help everyone that allows us to help them, to continue the Great Commission and love people well.”
Keeping the faith is central to the message of Samaritan’s Purse. Those the organization helped echoed that message.
“They told us a Bible verse, Philippians 1:3, that reminds me of them,” Thrun said, “’I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.’ That’s what I would say to them.”