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Published: Wednesday, 6/9/2010

Volunteers by hundreds sign up to lend a hand

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

People are showing up and pitching in.

With sturdy work gloves and chain saws, they come.

With hot pizza and cold water, with sunscreen and tool belts, they come.

And with outstretched hands, they clear debris, sort donations, deliver supplies, and warm the heart of a tornado-ravaged community.

Hundreds of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan residents registered yesterday at a reception center set up at Grace United Methodist Church in Perrysburg, where the United Way of Greater Toledo is coordinating volunteer efforts this week.

People walk in, fill out forms, listen to safety briefings, get work assignments, and then head to Lake Township, hard hit last weekend by swirls of destruction.

C.J. Wendt, a 17-year-old graduate of Sylvania Northview High School, had planned to spend his day at the Toledo Zoo. But he reconsidered.

"I could hang out with my friends. I could go see lions and tigers," he said. Or, "I could help out the community."

Helping, he decided, would be the right thing to do.

"The kids are pretty pumped. They are eager to do what they can to help others," said Abby Wozniak of Toledo, a student ministries assistant at Westgate Chapel, as several junior high and high school students, including C.J., climbed into vehicles in the parking lot of Grace church.

They were assigned to remove debris from fields and along roadways near Lake Elementary School.

Other volunteers are assisting with food preparation and water distribution, and a main focus continues to be debris removal at several locations.

Volunteers receive color-coded wrist bands. The color changes daily. Green Monday; orange yesterday.

Volunteers need not register daily, but must obtain new wrist bands each day, and depending on assignments, they get safety goggles, gloves, hand sanitizer, and/or face masks.

The center at Grace Church on East Boundary is scheduled to remain open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Saturday, but daily assessments at the tornado site could alter the time frame, said Bill Kitson, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Greater Toledo. The United Way will develop a long-term assistance plan for the Lake Township community, he said. "We are in this until the community says it's over."

In addition to donations of labor, there's been an outpouring of compassion from local companies. Some donate sandwiches, cookies, brownies, coffee, bagels, and cream cheese; others bring in large boxes of gloves and cases of bottled water. Construction companies line up to loan equipment and tools, such as backhoes and wood chippers. Apartment complexes offer discount rates for people whose homes vanished with the wind.

Right now, anyone who wants to help is assigned a job, Mr. Kitson said, but eventually, the to-do list will become skill-based.

A trio of skilled friends - Matt Freeman, a firefighter with Ottawa Lake and Riga Township; Tom Clapsaddle of Paulding, Ohio, who works at a commercial dairy, and Jeff Kaczmarski, a Toledo construction worker - came prepared not only to tackle heavy-duty chores, but to help feed some of the volunteers as well. They brought Gatorade, bottled water, soft drinks, chains, a chain saw and chain-saw fuel, a four-wheeler with winch, and a tow truck. And they had made arrangements for a work-site pizza delivery.

Mr. Freeman and Mr. Clapsaddle graduated from Lake High School in 1992. Because of the tornado, the high school is in ruins.

"That area, that's where I grew up. I have relatives out there," Mr. Clapsaddle said. "It's rough."

The tremendous turnout of volunteers doesn't surprise Mr. Kaczmarski one bit.

"People, especially in small towns, stick together. They help each other out," he said.

At the reception center, they listened closely as RSVP volunteer Mary Ann Howard of Oregon explained safety rules, such as no running off by yourself. And, don't go into any dark, confined, or hazardous places.

Volunteers are asked to participate in a debriefing after their jobs are completed, she said.

When the debris has been cleared, when the dust has settled, when the news cameras and headlines go away, what then? Ms. Wozniak asked. Will people still want to volunteer?

Westgate Chapel, for one, is making a commitment to stay with the community of Millbury for as long as help is needed.

Perhaps ministers in the community, who are helping residents make funeral plans or who are visiting injured people in hospitals, could use some extra assistance, she said, or maybe some Lake Township children will need school supplies in August.

"Today, what we're doing now, this is just the start," she said.

Added Ingrid Coats, a volunteer with the Westgate Chapel group: "I see this as an ongoing outreach to the community, four months, six months down the road. The reality is that all of this is not going to go away for a long time."

Contact Janet Romaker at:

jromaker@theblade.com or

419-724-6006.



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