Gifford, Washington continue to rebuild

The Schildt’s new home in Washington, Illinois.

By Claire Hettinger

On Nov. 17, 2013, an EF-4 tornado destroyed more than the buildings and structures of Washington and Gifford, Illinois — it destroyed the lives and memories of the residents who live there.

Although new homes and buildings line the street, the communities of Gifford and Washington are still working to pick up the pieces of their old communities.

Zach Schildt was one Washington resident whose home was destroyed in the storm. For the past year, his family has been living in hotel rooms and a rental home as they wait to move into their new house on Dec. 12.

Schildt said he remembers the look on one of his neighbor’s faces — pure and utter horror— after he saw the destruction the tornado caused. He said he now understands why people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder years after a disaster occurs, and why they are changed by a storm that seemingly came out of nowhere.

The Schildt family’s house was not started until July due to the demand of contractors in the area. Although Schildt said he is excited about moving back to his old (new) house, he seems unsure how to refer to it. The house plan is completely different from what it was, but the family is looking forward to becoming a part of the neighborhood once again.

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For Schildt, however, life is different now. He thinks about death now — his death and others. He knows he could have died that day as he ran from a tornado. He knows he could die anytime.

“I’m really lucky I didn’t die that day,” he said.

The Schildts, along with other residents of Washington and Gifford, are not the only ones who have been affected by the tornado’s destruction over the past year. Students and community members in Champaign-Urbana, even those who had never heard of Gifford and Washington, continue to volunteer and aid the recovering communities.

Sister Maryann Schaefer, a member of the pastoral staff at the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on campus, originally volunteered in Washington, a suburb of Peoria, but soon learned of the damage in Gifford and the lack of volunteers in the small farming community that is only 24 miles away from campus.

While Washington was prominent in the news, she said, campus groups did not realize that there was so much damage in Gifford, a community much closer to home.

“You never saw Gifford in the paper,” she said.

Groups from the Newman Center started going to Gifford on Saturdays to help wherever they could. Although they stopped this past November, they plan to start back up when the weather gets warmer.

“For (the first) two months, we did nothing but clean cornfields, over 800 acres of cornfield for different farmers,” Schaefer said.

The fields were devastated and full of everything from Christmas decorations, baby clothing, siding of buildings and even a one-hundred dollar bill stuck in the mud, she said.

Schaefer’s “Blue Army,” as they are affectionately called by the residents of Gifford, have painted homes, fixed floors, built a shed, and are even learning to put on a roof.

“We have become a vital part of their rebuilding effort … They have adopted us as part of their family,” Schaefer said.

Sam Birchenough, a member of the Blue Army and sophomore in Engineering, said he started by going to Gifford to volunteer on “Gifford Saturdays,” and also spent a week in the town on a Gospel Roads trip through the Newman Center.

As a result of this past year’s experiences in Gifford, he said he has grown as a person not only by learning construction skills, but also in his faith in himself, in God and in humanity.

“It has changed my life,” Birchenough said. “The (thing) that is special about Gifford is the people and the attitude and how much they are committed to each other, their faith and the community as a whole,” he said.

Hannah Travis, senior in LAS, also continues to volunteer along with Birchenough. She said working in Gifford is different from other mission trips she’s been on because it is so close to home and it is more personal because of the relationships being built with the community.

“It has been very rewarding because we’ve been able to watch (Gifford) grow back step by step,” she said.

It usually takes communities three years to completely rebuild after a storm, Schaefer said, but Gifford is doing better every day. The fields the volunteers have cleaned were planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, a large step forward for a community who lives off the land.

Additionally, Service and Justice Outreach, a student organization sponsored by Newman, is hosting a Christmas party in Gifford for the children of families who have lost their homes, Schaefer said. There was also giving tree in Newman Hall for volunteers to buy presents for these children to help make their holiday season a little more joyful.

But, perhaps, the Schildt’s are getting the biggest gift of all: a home for the holidays.

Claire can be reached at [email protected].