Coming home

My home doesn’t look the same.

Four days ago, an EF-4 tornado tore through the heart of Washington, Ill., my hometown. They told me it was over in minutes, but hours later when I drove into town I couldn’t help but wonder if it ever would be truly over.

I’d lived in Washington since I was 8 years old, and I hardly recognized what I saw. The houses I’d watched being built over the years, the neighborhoods I used to ride my bike through on the way to school — so much of it was gone that I just couldn’t register what people would be saying for the next few days.

Our home was gone.

Two years ago as a senior in high school, I wanted nothing more than to get out of Washington and never look back. I was a whiny, ambitious teenager who was tired of all of the small-town nonsense, and I wasn’t the only one.

We wanted to be free; we wanted to go out into the world and become the people we are, something many of us thought we could never do in Washington.

But staring out at the wreckage and seeing the hundreds of families with nowhere to go, I felt something I knew those like me would soon be feeling, too. I felt hurt, I felt helpless and I felt like a piece of me had broken on the inside. Though my house was spared, my home took an unimaginable hit.

And for the first time, I realized Washington had made more of me than anything ever would.

That night, I thought about the friends I’d grown up with and how wherever they were, they would feel the same things I did when they came back. Some of the hurt won’t be as much, some will undoubtedly be worse, but we will all hurt. Together, we will all feel a similar kind of pain.

Since coming back to Champaign, though, I’ve realized something else. Many people in Washington have lost their houses, but we have not lost our home.

Because Washington will always be our home no matter how bad the disaster. There are things you can find in a home that will always be stronger than pain and can never be swept away.

Friendship. Family. Community. Hope. You can find every one of these values in Washington, rising from the ruin.

Lives are changed, and not all things can be replaced. Many people have lost their pets, some may have even lost a friend in the one unfortunate local man who was taken by the tornado.

Whether a family still has its house doesn’t change the strength and support it can find in the still-beating heart of its hometown.

When former Washington Panthers come home for Thanksgiving, they aren’t going to see the same place they saw before they left. And I know some are scared to get back, because once you’re there it becomes real.

There’s no more hoping you’ll wake up from a bad dream. But we children of Washington all need our home in a time like this.

We can’t know the pain until we move forward, and we can’t find the strength to keep going anywhere else but at home.

So if you haven’t been back yet, know that what you’ll find is likely to break your heart. But don’t be afraid to face it, because broken hearts can be mended if we go back to the place where we all started.

And at that place, we can recover, we can rebuild, and together we can make sure Washington continues to make its people for years to come.

It’s time to go home.

J.J. Wilson is a sophomore in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]