By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JEFFERSON CITY — Barely six months old in May, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri was a two-person operation that had yet to hire its first permanent director when it was called to respond to its first natural disaster.
Heavy spring rains had swollen the Mississippi River, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to blow a two-mile hole in the Bird’s Point Levee, flooding some 100 farms and homes in southeast Missouri in order to spare the 2,800 residents of Cairo, Ill., downstream.
Interim director Kyle Schott, working out of his home in Cape Girardeau, was still assessing and responding to the needs of those families on May 22 when he received a phone call he’ll never forget.
Three hundred miles across the state but still in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, an EF-5 tornado had flattened about one-third of the city of Joplin, killing 162 people.
“What do you do? We were a two-person organization, myself and an administrative assistant,” Schott said at a workshop at the annual Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly Oct. 1.
“You call out the cavalry,” he said, answering his own question. “You get your friends to help.”
Schott said he didn’t even have to call. Within hours of the tornado, Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph CEO Mike Halterman called him.
“He said, ‘Kyle, we’re coming in,’” Schott said.
By mid-week, a team of Catholic Charities professionals and volunteers from Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the Diocese of Jefferson City and from Catholic Charities USA were on the ground running, coordinating and organizing relief supplies that were pouring into the city from around the nation by the truckload.
And the Catholic Charities agencies also sent skilled case managers to listen to the stories of victims — the first step in healing — and assessing their needs and the available resources to address them.
That work is continuing, and will continue for months, if not years, said Maura Taylor, who came on board June 13 as Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri’s first permanent director.
“People are still devastated,” Taylor said. “They’ve lost loved ones, their jobs, their homes, their cars, their neighborhood and their churches. They don’t know where else to turn for help, and we’re there to help them.”
Taylor said that only three agencies are still providing case management services in Joplin — the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and Catholic Charities. Of the three, Catholic Charities is the largest provider.
“We have seen over 6,500 people in 2,800 families,” Taylor said. “We identify their immediate needs, then we help them develop a long-term plan to put them on the road to recovery.”
The Catholic Charities’ response in Joplin is a stunning example of the Catholic Church pulling together to serve people in desperate need, said Springfield-Cape Girardeau Bishop James V. Johnston.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t realize the significance of the church organizing itself to respond to those needs,” he said. “A lot of what we accomplished was because of our Catholic Charities agencies.”
The statistics from the response, just from Catholic Charities single emergency services center in Joplin, are staggering, Taylor said.
In addition to case management services, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri has distributed more than $95,000 in direct cash assistance for needs ranging from rent and utility assistance to car repairs.
“They may have lost their car and bought a clunker to replace it, and now the clunker won’t run,” Taylor said.
Catholic Charities has also coordinated more than 60,000 hours of work from more than 3,700 volunteers, some of whom just showed up and said, “We’re here to help,” and others who came to do specific and vitally needed tasks.
For example, Taylor said, two men — one from Albany, N.Y., and one from Pittsburgh, Pa., — came with lumber and tools to build badly needed shelves for relief supplies at a warehouse Taylor was able to acquire.
Because of the help from other Catholic Charities agencies in quickly organizing relief supplies, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri alone was able to distribute more than 4,200 tons — 8,400,000 pounds — of food, water, household items and paper and personal hygiene products.
That does not include the used car that was donated.
“That went to a young man who is turning his life around,” Taylor said. “He had a job, so he could pay for insurance. He is still working part-time, but he is now going back to school.”
Both Taylor and Schott also had advice for well-meaning people who loaded up supplies and drove them into Joplin — Don’t send used clothes. Every emergency center in Joplin is still swamped with bags upon bags of clothes, much of it unusable.
“Clothes are taking up space that should be used for other relief supplies or even for shelter for the people who lost their homes,” Taylor said.
“I know people are well-meaning,” Schott said, “but a lot of this looked like it was left over from a yard sale.”
Taylor also said that if people want to donate directly to a victim, send a Visa or MasterCard gift card that can be used virtually anywhere for any need. She said that store-specific gift cards should be avoided.
“We got a lot of Quik Trip gas cards,” Taylor said. “There aren’t any Quik Trips in Joplin.”
Taylor said that although donations poured into Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri initially, the ongoing needs will soon exhaust that money.
A critical point will be reached in November 2012, 18 months after the tornado, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be required to remove its temporary housing trailers.
Taylor said the tornado took out much of the city’s older, affordable rental housing south of downtown Joplin, and there will be little rebuilt to replace it.
Catholic Charities is working on a long-range plan to build affordable housing, as it still is trying to rebuild lives one at a time.
In addition to the critical need for cash donations, Taylor said that Catholic Charities would glady accept donations of bicycles that would solve transportation needs for many people. Other items badly needed include appliances in good condition, household items such as dishes and flatware, and building supplies, as well as the skilled volunteer labor to help repair and rebuild homes.
Bishop Johnston said the combined efforts of Catholic Charities has raised the profile of the church in an area of the state where Catholics are a small minority.
“It’s made people in our diocese aware of the many needs Catholic Charities serves,” he said. “It’s a concrete example of where the church needs to be — with people in need.”
Cash donations can be sent to Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, 601 S. Jefferson St., Springfield, MO 65806. People wishing to make in-kind donations of goods or volunteer labor should contact Gabe Tischler at the Joplin Donation and Distribution Center, 113 E. 9th St., Joplin, MO (417) 616-9314, or (417) 499-2920.