Lessons In The Rubble

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On the afternoon of Monday, May 20th, I watched as the first reports of the devastating F5 tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma, began to trickle in. Though it had been years since I traveled to the area, I was familiar with Moore and surrounding Oklahoma City where many of my friends from high school and college had settled.  I immediately began to check in on my friends to make sure they were all okay.  As I did, more details began to emerge about the scale of the damage, including the tragedy at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

As I watched the news reports, I began to think about my personal connections to this part of the country.  My father was born in Oklahoma, and was raised on a farm outside of the small town of Granite.  During my childhood, my family made visits to the area to visit my grandmother and other family.  Eventually, my family moved to Altus, Oklahoma, the summer before my junior year in high school.  I quickly made a lot of friends through football and church activities.  My high school football team traveled around the western part of the state, playing teams from rural communities and big cities — including Moore.  I built more lasting friendships while attending college in Stillwater.  And still today, when I consider who I count among my closest friends, and when I look through the list of hundreds of Facebook connections, the common thread is readily apparent: Oklahoma.

So it came to me quite quickly and naturally: I needed to go to Moore.  Within just a few minutes I had a rental car reservation and invitations from friends in the OKC area to stay in their guest rooms.  Most of those people I had not seen since high school or college.  Other close friends sent me money to take with me to help in whatever way necessary.  I left Denver Tuesday morning.   As I drove, my mother worked the phones from Wichita to reach the local and national charities and a number of churches that had been identified as sites where relief efforts were being organized.  I made a brief stop in Wichita to transfer vehicles and enlist the help of my father’s beloved pickup to be part of the effort.  It seemed only fitting that I employ my Okie dad’s truck to provide help to his home state.  It warmed my heart to do so.

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I arrived at my friend John’s house Tuesday evening.  John and I had played high school football together.  It had been at least 25 years since we had seen each other, yet he was kind enough to allow me to use his house as my home base while in OKC.  The following morning, I drove south toward Moore and was rendered completely speechless as I came upon the storm path and the full extent of the damage came into view.  Traffic along the interstate was congested due to numerous road blocks, and it took about an hour to navigate my way to the north edge of the debris area.

When I finally arrived at Southgate Baptist Church, hundreds of volunteers were already on the scene to clear debris from the adjacent Moore Cemetery.  It was being cleared to prepare for funeral services in the coming days.  There was very little structure to the effort — just countless individuals with big hearts and a desire to help, all scouring the ground of tiny bits of debris.

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Some volunteers arrived in groups from local companies, while others arrived as families, classmates, or just close groups of friends.  And still others, like me, arrived solo anxious to plug into the relief effort in whatever way was needed.  Over the following days, I would meet a student from Joplin, an aspiring mayor from North Carolina, a mother and daughter from Wisconsin, the pastor of a biker congregation, best friends from Roswell, and a fireman from Boulder by way of Brooklyn.  I noticed not only the resolve, but the very clear joy on the faces of everyone there to help.  After all, there’s a reason it’s called it “the Heartland.”  It was an incredibly unifying dynamic, and helped us all keep our energy levels up while healing our hearts of what we were seeing.

Every day we would form into small teams, like relief militias equipped with food and vital supplies, and set out into the heart of the debris fields that used to be neighborhoods, schools, parks, and gathering places.  We would walk the streets offering warm meals, diapers, gloves, water, and anything else we managed to load into dad’s truck from the church warehouse’s stockpile.  Again and again, we encountered families standing among rubble, gazing blankly at what lied beneath their unsteady feet, silently maneuvering from one broken beam to another.  And in the midst of what was for many their most tragic life event, we were able to coax an expression of relief, or gratitude, and in some cases, even happiness simply because we were there to show them they were not alone in this.

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On a particularly muggy afternoon, on the day authorities began to open up most areas for families to go back to find their homes, my team met a husband and wife at their home site.  Two folding chairs sat in the middle of a pile of wood and bricks that used to house their family photos, mementos of a lifetime, children’s trophies, china set, and countless other items that make a house a home.  Nearby, the back end of a Harley Davidson poked out from a pile of bricks and roofing tiles that had collapsed on top if.  Next to one chair was a drawer being used to collect small items as they were found in the rubble.  The husband was a retired police officer, and had managed to locate all of the badges he had collected over his career in law enforcement.  It was clear that among the tangible items that could have been lost, these meant a great deal to him.  The relief showed on his face.

We brought them gloves, water and warm meals, all of which was set ever-so-gently on the ground next to the drawer filled with badges.  We listened to them both as they described their home, how long they had lived there, and where they were when the storm hit.  The harrowing stories were never-ending.  As we said our goodbyes, the husband stopped us.  He took off his glasses, extended his hand as we all placed ours on his, and said:

“You know, you can’t possibly understand what your being here means to us.  Here we are, and we know we’ll get through this.  But all of you…  You left your jobs, your families, your homes, and your lives just to be here with us.  I can never repay you for that.  But I can look you in the eye, and hold your hand, and tell you with everything in me ‘thank you.'”

On several occasions during my time in Moore, I had a chance to visit with other volunteers and trade stories on what compelled us to be there.  No one had a clear answer, but their rationale seemed rooted in something deep within their consciousness.  It wasn’t complex.  It was rather pure.  They simply wanted to help.  I think I can speak for all of us there:  we were not looking for thanks, but rather any simple sign that what we were doing was truly helpful.  Through one man’s heartfelt expression of gratitude, he gave us all the affirmation of our purpose we could ask for.

I have worked in philanthropy for a long time, and have learned a great deal about strategic planning, sustainable financial management, volunteer engagement, Board development, tax laws, governance and the many other aspects of managing a successful non-profit organization.  But my greatest inspiration throughout my career – and my life – has always come from what happens when one hand is extended to help another.  I’ve seen it time and again – when we extend a hand in help, our own lives are enriched.

An important reminder of a simple truth: Our wealth does not lie in what we possess.  It is found in what we give.

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