For five days last week, 19 Newtown teenagers worked through 100-degree Oklahoma heat, dodged powerful thunderstorms, avoided rattlesnakes, scorpions and other creatures foreign to most New Englanders, and endured cold showers and ad hoc sleeping arrangements. They did this all in the attempt to provide help to people and towns ravaged by the tornadoes that swept through Oklahoma over 12 days in May.
The July 21-26 trip, sponsored by Ben’s Lighthouse and funded by generous donations from people within and outside of Newtown, brought these teens and five chaperones together with about 80 others from youth groups from Michigan, Florida, Idaho, Arizona, Illinois and Colorado to engage in physically demanding and emotionally draining work.
The participants were assigned to crews and tasked with jobs that included clearing fallen trees, debris removal, roof repair, demolition, construction framing, and drywall installation. In many cases, the residents being helped were living in tents or in damaged homes while waiting for repairs to be done.
Early on, the teens learned the history of the three recent tornadoes that ripped through central Oklahoma. On May 19, a category F4 tornado (200 mph winds) ripped through rural parts of Norman, Newalla, McCloud and other towns on the outskirts of Oklahoma City killing two and damaging thousands of homes. The following day, an F5 tornado (260 mph) devastated the suburban town of Moore, killing seven schoolchildren and seventeen others. Eleven days later, another F5 storm took 21 lives in rural communities, some of which had been touched by the earlier storms.
The work of the Newtown youth was focused on the victims of the first storm who were largely ignored by the media and recovery efforts after the Moore tornado hit.
“We spent the first portion of our first day building a solid foundation with our resident,” wrote Jennifer Peterson, a chaperone who posted a daily blog on the Ben’s Lighthouse Facebook page. “She asked if we wanted to see her storm shelter. When she opened the door I was taken aback. The walls were covered in lighthouses. At that moment I knew we were meant to be here doing this work.” The crew headed out with saws, clippers, shovels and rakes to cut and remove fallen and damaged trees on the property.
Similar stories played out across the twenty crews on a dozen different sites, each of which had at least one participant from Ben’s Lighthouse.
On top of the work being performed, the Newtown group made emotional visits to two heart-wrenching but inspiring memorials. On Sunday afternoon, they visited the site of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred E. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City where 168 people, including 19 preschoolers, were killed. There, they spoke with a survivor who had lost her father in the bombing and they toured the beautiful and poignant outdoor memorial.
On Thursday evening, the group visited the remains of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore where they met families of some of the seven children who were killed when a cinder block wall toppled on them during the tornado. These intense, emotional interactions were difficult for all, but ultimately resulted in uniquely strong bonds being formed between the communities. (The chaperones discussed the potential emotional impact with the group in preparation for each of these visits. Each workcamper was allowed to opt out of either or both, if desired. All chose to attend.)
“We’ve been on many Workcamp trips before,” said Paget Haylon, one of the organizers and a veteran of more than a half dozen mission trips with Trinity Church, “but this one was different for so many reasons: the devastation we witnessed, the intensity of the emotions of being from Newtown in the wake of our own recent tragedy, and the fact that the chaperones and youth represented a true cross-section of our town who had never before been together as a group before two weeks ago.”
Added Pastor Kathie Adams-Shepherd of Trinity who accompanied the group, “We left Newtown early Sunday morning as a group of mostly strangers, but by Tuesday we were a family.”
The group of 19 was selected by lottery out of the nearly 40 young adults who applied within days of the trip announcement at the end of June.
“It broke my heart that we couldn’t take everyone who wanted to go,” said Rick Haylon, another of the organizers, “but Ben’s Lighthouse is committed to ongoing community service events and activities to give Newtown youth the opportunity to share their love, compassion, and work ethic with others. We went into this trip with the motto ‘Helping Is Healing’ and that certainly proved to be true.”
One of the workcampers shared this sentiment during the trip home on Friday: “I haven’t been able to talk about Sandy Hook since it happened,” the workcamper said, “but now I can.”
Ben’s Lighthouse is a grassroots organization created to support Newtown’s children through community-building events and service projects along with programs and workshops focused on healing in a safe environment. More information is available at www.benslighthouse.org.