Bishop Rayford High drove to Cleburne recently for one specific purpose – to hand over $6,000 to the Cleburne Area Relief Fund to assist in the ongoing rebuilding efforts in that community. It is part of the diocese’s commitment to help both Cleburne and Granbury recover from the May 15 tornadoes that ripped through Hood, Johnson, and Ellis Counties, leaving wide swaths of destruction in their wake.
Most of the funds donated for tornado relief are going to Westlake Village Mobile Home Park in Cleburne in Johnson County and to Granbury in Hood County. Two smaller donations were designated and have been sent for relief efforts in West, TX and in Oklahoma.
In Johnson County, the diocese’s effort may seem small, but they are having a big impact on a lot of people. The Johnson County tornado touched down on both sides of Lake Pat Cleburne, hitting large expensive homes on one side of the lake and mobile homes in Westlake Village on the other side of the lake. While the damage to the big homes was more visible and featured most prominently on news casts, the damage at the Westlake Village Mobile Home Park also was severe. Indeed, it was bad enough – two mobile homes completely destroyed, other mobile homes and sheds damaged — that the owner, Dennis Sexson, was convinced he would have to declare bankruptcy and close the park.
“The first night that the tornado hit us I told my wife that it was all over and I would have to go back to working for a company again so that I could support our family. It was so discouraging to know that the last 9 years of my life building up a business that supports us and provides for our needs was gone in about 5 minutes,” Sexson wrote in a note to Deacon Tracie Middleton, diocesan disaster relief coordinator.
“If it were not for your church and many others like yours I probably would of most likely had to shut down the park and file for bankruptcy.”
Closure of the mobile home park would have forced all the resident families to find other very scarce low cost housing, creating even more victims of the storm.
Happily, that did not happen. And it did not happen in large part because Episcopalians in the Diocese of Fort Worth gave generously to the diocesan tornado relief fund. Added to donations from other dioceses and money from the discretionary fund of Bishop Rayford High, enough funds have been raised to help with rebuilding efforts in both Cleburne and Granbury. However, because the damage in Cleburne was much smaller in scale compared to the hundred or so damaged or destroyed homes in Granbury, the work in Cleburne is much nearer completion.
“We hope to celebrate some house blessings before long,” said Deacon Middleton.
Pam Yarborough, a member at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Stephenville, whose family lives in Cleburne, has provided invaluable information about needs in the Cleburne community. She has done most of the ground work there. In the immediate aftermath of the storm she was the person who identified the need quickly and alerted the diocese.
She and her family drive about an hour to Stephenville to be able to attend an Episcopal church, since Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Cleburne is occupied by people aligned with the breakaway faction. This connection with the wider church is an important part of her work with the diocese.
The diocese has helped replace the two destroyed mobile homes as well as with repairs on sheds, electrical wiring, and plumbing.
“Thanks so much for the time and money you and your church have given to make the park a better place after this horrible ordeal. My focus over the last couple of months has been on the people in the park getting back their lives. This has been very rewarding and good, but also exhausting. It has opened my eyes to the generosity of people that God uses to help others, and show that God still cares for us all. I have not spoken much of my family and how much this tragedy could of broken us, but it didn’t. It has instead increased my faith in God, and helped me see that there are still people alive and willing to help others that they don’t even know. I have a wife, three girls ages 13, 11, and 8, a mother-in-law that lives with us, along with her sister that will be moving in with us in September that this park supports. . . I can’t thank you all enough for what you have done…. May God continue to use you to help others, for this is truly what being a Christian really is,” Sexson wrote.
Bishop High delivered the check to some of the people administering the Cleburne Area Relief Fund, set up through the Pinnacle Bank. It is a collaborative effort of several local churches and the Cleburne Chamber of Commerce. These included Cathy Marchel, president of the Chamber of Commerce; Brent Shields, worship pastor at Bethel Temple Assembly of God; and Mark Ely of College Heights Baptist Church. They are part of a committee that meets face to face with all applicants and reviews applications before disbursing the funds. They reported that of all the people who have applied for aid, only two have been deemed to be people trying to game the system – an astonishingly low number in the aftermath of any disaster.
The Johnson County Builders Association has donated materials and labor as well. And Episcopalians have helped in other, smaller ways. One of the families whose mobile home was demolished had three dogs. Two were in the mobile home during the tornado and the third was in a dog house. The tornado ripped off one wall which landed on the dog house, trapping the dog inside. All three dogs were rescued, but all three now suffer terribly from fear and anxiety in storms. So a member at St. Stephen’s, Hurst, purchased “thunder shirts” for all three dogs. These are dog anxiety wraps that create a gentle constant pressure that calms the animal.
The work in Granbury will be more of a long-distance race than a sprint. Volunteers and groups will be welcome and needed for many months to come. Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, worshiping in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Granbury, is working closely with several organizations in the community who have combined forces under the umbrella of Mission Granbury in responding to the needs of the families whose homes were damaged or completely destroyed in the Rancho Brazos neighborhood. Sixty of the damaged or destroyed homes were built by Habitat for Humanity, an organization Good Shepherd has supported for many years. Norm Snyder, a member at Good Shepherd, is spearheading the church’s involvement there and is carrying The Episcopal Church’s commitment to help to the Long-Term Recovery Committee, which includes all the groups involved in this large-scale undertaking.
Since it is a much larger project with a projected two-year approximate timeline, plans are more complex and more coordination is needed to avoid duplicating work in Granbury. Half of the funds donated to the diocese for tornado relief have been set aside for the work in that community. Those funds will be allocated based on the needs that Good Shepherd identifies as individual needs and projects become more clearly defined.
As the short-term response of debris removal and providing immediate needs (food, water, clothing, shelter) shifts now into a long-term recovery phase (rebuilding of homes), the opportunity will become available for tornado relief funds to go to work in Granbury, too. Information on these efforts will be updated as events develop.