Thursday, March 24, 2016

Are We Winston Strong?

There was another house dedication on Wednesday by Winston
Strong and its current partner, Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) – another family ready to move back into a home. The ceremony was similar to many that have taken place before but this one felt different. This one had an air of melancholy that was enhanced by the on-coming twilight. The final electrical work had not been completed so the crowd of workers, family and well wishers stood under the night sky illuminated by the stars rather than in a dark living room lit by flashlights and blinking cell phones.

Some understood the significance of this dedication, not because of who the property owners were or the difficulty of the project but because it represented an ending – the last house, the last project, the last time most of these people who had developed such strong ties would work together.

Winston Strong had a difficult start. Some immediately saw the need for an organization to focus on long term recovery after the April 28, 2014 tornado. Others, while well meaning, attacked the idea of gathering funds to be spent at a later date rather than providing immediate monies for those in need of everything from housewares to toilet paper. Some didn’t see the purpose. Those more cynical, envisioned a bunch of rich old men doling out the donated funds to their cronies.

The need for an organization such as Winston Strong was made more apparent than ever to community leaders after taking the time to listen to others who had been through similar tragedies, particularly the folks in Smithville, Ms. and along the Gulf Coast.

There are many groups that rush in and assist in a natural disaster providing food, water, shelter and cleanup. They were a godsend to our community. But after the storm calms and the immediate necessities of life are stabilized, these organizations move on to the next place of need. Those without a home to return to and lacking the ability to replace what they lost easily slip through the cracks left between insurance and FEMA payments and regulations.

Money and support to rebuild were in desperate need. More than 40% of the homes destroyed by the tornado were not insured and many of those that were insured did not provide sufficient coverage to replace a home at current construction costs. Without assistance, many people who did everything right regarding FEMA funds and insurance were not going to be able to rebuild, repair or restore their lives.

By the summer of 2014, Winston Strong was organized and collecting funds and by late July, construction had begun on the first rebuild. Donations came from local businesses and industry, civic groups and individuals and from all parts of the country. Local construction volunteers worked along with groups such as Mennonite Disaster Relief, Christian Aid Ministries, Samaritan’s Purse, World Renew, United Methodist Committee On Relief, and the Baptist Association to rebuild and repair. Local contractors and suppliers worked and provided supplies at below market rates. Local economic development and government sought to provide warehousing for supplies and housing for volunteers – all coordinated through the efforts of Winston Strong.

Twenty three months after the storm, Winston Strong has aided 156 families in their recovery, whether this was a complete rebuild (27) or a repair of a damaged home (56) or assistance in terms of providing other needs. More than $500,000 of donated monies have been allocated to complete these projects and more than 50,000 volunteer man hours.

There were many folks who played roles in Winston Strong – far too many to mention and to do so would invariably exclude someone unjustly.

At Wednesday’s ceremony, Winston Strong Chairman Reverend Mike Dowd summed it up well.

“This is our first night time dedication and I think that may be appropriate and fitting because this is our final dedication. This is the last house that Winston Strong has been a part of building. We didn’t build it- we simply helped put some of the pieces together. We want to thank CAM, all the people that are here tonight and all those that have been here before them working on this house and many others. These six houses that have been built since the first of the year were part of Winston Strong’s final effort. With the dedication of this house and a few other things, Winston Strong is going to close its doors. That’s what it was designed to do- it was put together to be temporary – to build houses to help people recover from the tornado and we feel like we have done that. We haven’t done everything but we have done all that we can do.”

“Tonight with this dedication, it is bittersweet. It is so good that you (the homeowner) were able to get a house, that you decided what you wanted to do in a timely manner and we were able to hook you up with CAM and that you have done what you were supposed to do with what FEMA provided. To me, it’s just God at work – he gets all the glory for without him we don’t accomplish anything. I think it is so appropriate tonight to be out here under the stars. It’s nighttime for Winston Strong and time to wrap it up and put it to bed. I want to thank all the volunteers over the last 23 months who have come to our community to help us. Some way, somehow, I pray that we are able to pay it forward.”

The April 28, 2014 tornado changed many things forever in Winston County. Lives were lost, homes and hopes were destroyed and heavy burdens both financial and emotional were placed on the backs of many of its citizens. Yet its aftermath yielded more than tragedy and despair. For those willing to see it and willing to participate in it, the yield was hope, promise of a better future, rebirth and expectations of bigger and brighter things to come for our community.

Maybe, most importantly, it yielded something else – something that I hope we can keep intact, something that’s bigger than fights over flags or mascots, bigger than church denomination or political ideology, bigger than race. That EF4 tornado taught us all something – that in spite of all the things that separate us, we are all one community and if we remain so - we are Winston Strong.