Newman students help rebuild lives after Gifford tornado

By: Photo and text by Tom Dermody

GIFFORD — “Mary, help of Christians, pray for us. Let’s go get to work.”

With that charge from Sister Maryann Schaefer, FMA, a group of seven students from St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois ended their prayer huddle (pictured above) April 6 and began picking up debris scattered by a tornado that hit this village just east of Rantoul more than four months earlier.

“I think I’ve found all four seasons already,” said Nick Ramihi, a sophomore from Palatine, after only a half-hour of helping the group clear a lot along Ernray Lane on the town’s northeast edge. Ramihi had discovered a Christmas stocking, Easter eggs, and a Halloween decoration among the rubble left by the Nov. 17 twister that destroyed dozens of homes in the community.

Dozens of members of the Newman Center’s Service and Justice Outreach (SJO) are finding much more — including new perspectives, a sense of accomplishment, and nearness to Christ — as they assist those in need both locally and around the nation.

“It’s not just about rebuilding buildings, but about rebuilding lives” said Sister Maryann, who heads the SJO group. In addition to regular service opportunities in the community, including to senior citizens, the group also sponsors three “Gospel Roads” trips to work with the poor throughout the U.S. This school year the group served the homeless in Tampa in the fall, the intellectually challenged and disabled in Louisiana over spring break, and will help with a summer camp in New Jersey.

Because of the natural disaster that struck within their own county, the Newman Center added a fourth “Gospel Roads” experience this year. Each Saturday in April, student volunteers will assist with whatever is needed in Gifford. Then, from May 19 to 23, they plan to focus their efforts on one or two affected families during a week that will also be marked by a retreat experience and intense prayer.

Shortly after beginning work last Saturday, Sister Maryann had issued her first invitation to a Gifford family that lost their home.

Sandy and Don Willfong, who lived next to the lot where the students were working, came to express their gratitude. They had survived the tornado by huddling in a hallway while the winds damaged their home beyond repair. They are now renting a house in Rantoul.

Sandy, who attends St. Paul Lutheran Church, told Sister Maryann how in the days following the tornado a volunteer had given her a handmade plaque with the message “Sandy, don’t worry, I’ve got this all under control. ? Jesus.”

During the course of a five-minute conversation, she received three hugs from Sister Maryann, an assurance that “we’re family,” and an offer to help both the Willfongs and Sandy’s brother, who lives nearby and lost his home and possessions.

Since January, Sister Maryann has attended regular town meetings in Gifford to learn more about the community’s recovery and how to help. She has been working closely with volunteers organized through the Lutheran church, adding that barriers of faith are breaking down and bridges are being built “between Lutherans and a Catholic nun.”

After clearing the lot, the Newman students worked at a tornado-stricken home, removing furniture as well as taking up carpet and padding so the floor could be replaced.

The Gifford tornado was part of the same storm system that produced several damaging storms in the Midwest on Nov. 17, including the tornado that devastated Washington and other parts of Tazewell County.

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