Washington Strong // The Best Lessons Are Learned Through Adversity


When Ronnie left, I decided I needed to create a set of goals for myself in order to make his nine-month deployment pass faster. When I say “pass faster,” I kind of sound like I just want to get it over with (which I do, obviously) but I don’t want anyone to take that the wrong way. Since the day he left, I’ve wanted to use this time to focus on me. To take risks, accept failure, dance with joy, learn new lessons, and move forward in life with a positivity. Earlier this week, an opportunity presented itself and I grabbed a hold of it like nobody’s business. The tornado that destroyed roughly 1,400 homes in Washington, Illinois on Sunday, November 17th left my heart heavy as I listened to the radio that very morning. I specifically remember the pleas for help and the man who sincerely spoke the words, “Please, please… We need prayers now.” I was hoping for the opportunity to be able to go volunteer my time to those who had lost their homes. However, I kept telling myself over and over again how much work I had to get done, and that I wasn’t sure if I had the time to go. What a horrible excuse I made for myself for an entire week. I decided this past Sunday that I was GOING to go… There was no debating myself over it and I knew that I would surely regret it if I didn’t go. So, my mom and I made plans to go today. One day before Thanksgiving. (To be completely honest, I’d love nothing more than to go tomorrow, too.) It’s been five hours since I left Washington and I’m left with a heaviness that I can’t explain. My entire body feels heavy. I feel overwhelmed. I just visited hell on earth… with residents and survivors as angels in disguise - picking up the pieces with hope to rebuild.

115 miles away. 15 miles away. 5 miles away. The sick feeling in my stomach began when I started seeing piles upon piles of debri stacked up in the fields surrounding Washington. “We’re here,” I said after seeing them before us. We knew we wanted to volunteer in some way, but first we decided to drive around to see what kind of destruction the tornado had made. We made our way down Devonshire Rd, and the pretty street lined with sidewalks and trees turned into debris piles twice as tall as myself and houses with exposed rooms that reminded me of the dollhouses I used to play with as a child. I was in disbelief that the power of nature could result in something this extreme, and as I walked around the neighborhood with my camera, I began to cry. I had seen photos on the news, but no photo could portray the magnitude of what actually happened. As homeowners, where do you even begin after such a disaster?


After some time, we met up with two other volunteers and pulled our gloves and hats on and began to walk around a neighborhood that looked to be the most severely effected. By most severely effected, I mean houses that were completely leveled. The only thing left was the foundation, and the only way you could tell where rooms once stood was by looking at the difference in carpeting.

Every street looked the same because every street was filled with piled up debri, police cars, volunteers, workers in florescent yellow vests, and the residents themselves. We came upon a house with an American flag attached to the only thing left standing – the tree in a family’s front yard. While walking up to take a photo, my volunteer buddy, Adam, spotted a photo album stuck in the debri piled up near the side of the street. Could this family have not noticed that these photos were tossed? Flipping through the pages of these photos gave me my first deep emotional connection to the devastation in front of my eyes. For the first time, I put faces to what was once their home. I put this family to the nothingness that was left behind. I thought about what their plans might be and where they were staying with their young children. Wherever you are, I’m praying for you and will continue to pray for you for a long, long time.


We finally caught up with another group of volunteers who were working on one particular house. Our jobs were to bring personal items out of the house and move debri so that a skid loader could access the backyard to remove the wreckage. I took a rake and began to make a pathway, and turned the scattered pieces of wood, insulation, newspapers, steel, nails and so much else into piles for the man in the skid loader. I stopped to take a breath, looked up from the ground, and my eyes stopped on the 30-something year old woman next-door who was standing on the foundation of what used to be her home. It was obvious that she was having an extremely difficult time and all I wanted to do was run to her and wrap my arms around her. However, she looked as though she wanted a moment alone as she kneeled down and put her hand up to her face to wipe her tears. Soon, I saw another woman who walked up to her and took her hand as they walked away from the house. I wish I would have told her how much she meant to me. I wish I could have told her that, although a complete stranger to me, she was one of many residents to take away my selfishness and neediness in a heartbeat. I have everything (and I mean absolutely everything) I need, and I need to remember that every day.

Not only for Thanksgiving. But for every single day, I am thankful.

The next time I get upset over something so ridiculous, my mind will reflect on the laughter, the hugs, and the smiles shown by the people who lost everything. Somehow, every person I came into contact with today proved that there was definite existense of hope and optimism. After meeting a woman for two minutes, I learned that she had set her family's perfectly fine washer and dryer out in her driveway for "anyone who needed it." As she was saying this, a  demolition excavator claw was tearing apart what was left of her home. I was just completely amazed by the gestures of all the residents who were giving to their neighbors. I haven't been one for saying I would ever move back to Illinois to settle down and raise a family, but Washington changed my mind yesterday. I have so much more that I could say, but for now I am overwhelmed with the hurt that I have for everyone affected by this devastation. If you have a chance (even a day off) take the trip to Washington and volunteer your time. Not only will you leave with the love felt from the community of Washington, but you’ll surely leave with gratitude for all the things you have in your life, including your family, your friends, and the place you call home.

If you're on your desktop, I highly suggest playing this song while looking through the photos. It played yesterday in the car on our way down and I feel it fits perfectly. "So take heart, let His love lead us through the night, hold on to hope, and take courage again."


Here is a before photo from Google Maps along with a photo I took yesterday of just one of the streets affected. It may take years, but the community is determined and motivated to rebuild. I will be forever in debt of the lessons I learned from Washington today.

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