Cookie Baker has been on a lot of disaster relief trips, but she says something hit differently about this one — the children.
When tornados plowed through western Kentucky on Dec. 10 and 11, killing 77, they also left hundreds of people without homes, cars or even in some cases jobs.
And the storms swept away all their Christmas plans and presents too, said Baker, who serves with Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief. For the kids, that was a reminder life for them wasn’t normal right now.
“Most children, that time of year you see excitement on their faces, and they just had kind of blank stares,” she related.
Baker’s team of nine chaplains from Alabama arrived Dec. 19 to relieve the first team of six who deployed the week before. Most of the families they met had children, she said.
“One family I talked to, a couple and three boys — the oldest was 6 years old — they were living in the car,” Baker said. “They were almost emotionless, like they were devastated. It’s heartbreaking to see children like that.”
The family had lost a lot of things, including Christmas gifts, but thanks to the generosity of Alabama Baptists, Baker distributed gift cards to help out.
The mother “just broke down crying and said, ‘I told you an angel would show up. I told you God would send a way,’” Baker recalled.
She noted that after a disaster many want to send bottled water and clothes, when what is often most helpful is gift cards to help meet specific needs.
“The people feel bad enough and they don’t want to ask, but when they get that gift card, it brightens their day, it gives them some hope to see that somebody cares,” Baker said.
As she dispensed gift cards to families, there were multiple opportunities to share the love of Christ in a moment of need. Volunteers also were able to distribute special Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief teddy bears that say, “Jesus loves you and we do too,” a tangible reminder that they are loved and not alone.
Several people professed new faith in Christ while Alabama Baptist chaplains were serving.
“They wanted hope, and that’s what we wanted to give them,” Baker said.
Chaplaincy ministry has been the primary role of Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief in Kentucky so far. Fifteen chaplains, including Baker and Mark Wakefield, disaster relief and chaplaincy ministries strategist for Alabama Baptists, supported Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief teams on the ground doing cleanup and recovery and spent time with and ministering to survivors.
They also walked through damaged areas engaging people in conversations, Wakefield reported.
“Most of the disaster relief work was done by Kentucky teams. We were just able to come alongside them.”
Kentucky relief teams accomplished much during those weeks as far as initial cleanup, Wakefield added, but the long-term effort will be huge as so many people are still displaced.
Bob Cooper, interim director of missions for Winston Baptist Association, served on the first chaplaincy team from Alabama and said it’s a blessing to get to step into that role for both survivors and crews.
A chaplain is “a person whose whole job is to listen to the survivor and then make sure our crews are both physically and spiritually fit and help the ‘blue hat’ foreman of each crew make sure nobody is getting too tired,” Cooper explained. “It was an interesting deployment in that I think we helped them open their eyes to the ministry of chaplain after a crisis a little more than they had previously experienced.”
Cooper and his wife have served in disaster relief ministry for a decade, and he said other than the 2018 California wildfires, this was the “worst destruction I’d ever seen.”
One story Cooper said will stick with him is of a family who huddled in their hallway as the roof was blown off their house. The father dove into the hall just as the storm was hitting and had a hard time holding on as the tornado blew by.
But they were OK, and after the storm had passed, they realized their infant had slept through the whole thing.
“That was the silver lining for the whole neighborhood,” Cooper said, adding that the family was encouraged to see how strangers came together to care for them.
He too was encouraged by that sight, as he is every time, Cooper said. When he was living in Colorado nine years ago and had to evacuate because of wildfires, a team from Kentucky came to help clean out ash in his area. He showed a photo of that team to someone he was working alongside in Kentucky in December.
“I said, ‘Do you know these people?’ and she said, ‘I know them all.’ She pointed to one and said, ‘That guy right here, he’s here,’” Cooper recounted.
So he was able to reconnect with him and thank him again, while now serving alongside them in their home state.
“It’s a small world and a small family in disaster relief,” Cooper said.