February 22, 2008

When a tornado ripped through Muhlenberg County on the night of Feb. 5, it left behind heartache and lots of work to be done. 4-H members from the county pitched in for the next five days to help clear up debris the storm left behind.

The students returned to their classrooms the following Monday but are still pitching in after school and when they can to help their friends and neighbors in this western Kentucky community.

Steven and Julie Bilyeu had their home damaged in the Tuesday tornado. Fallen trees trapped them inside their home for awhile until firefighters could clear a path. In the days following, 4-H teens and volunteers showed up in their neighborhood to help.

“I pulled in here Friday about lunchtime and there were 30 or 40 people sitting in my driveway, and by evening they had our yard looking pretty good,” said Steven Bilyeu. “They’ve done some wonderful work here. Well, they’re still here doing some work. They did a good job. Everybody in the county’s been helping, but I have to say 4-H was the best that was here.”

Julie Bilyeu said her husband called her and said she’d never believe what was happening in their yard.

“He called me and said ‘your not going to believe it, I’ve got pictures, but you won’t believe it. We’ve got 30 or 40 people here. There’s so many I can’t count them,’ ” she said. “They’ve done just a fantastic job. We had no connections to 4-H. They just came and did it out of the goodness of their hearts and they’ve done just an absolutely wonderful job. When they left here, they just went to the next job.”

The Bilyeus lost two vans, and the storm moved their mobile home off its foundation. But he said they were lucky; their neighbors lost everything.

Muhlenberg County 4-H Agent Tommy Harrison said nothing like this has ever happened in the community before, and the outpouring of support has been tremendous.

“There’ve been groups as far away as Maryland come to help,” he said. “There’s a group from Murray that’s been working out of the extension office that’s rented Bobcats® and a line of equipment, and they don’t know anyone here. It’s amazing how much support we’ve had.”

On the night of the deadly storms, Harrison said one 4-H member’s family lost its car lot and other 4-H’ers came to help. On the following day, he started getting calls wanting to help, so he organized a cleanup effort.

“A lot of the 4-H’ers and teens have gotten involved,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me. It’s made me very happy. We’ve had 80 4-H volunteers and youth come out and help with this cleanup effort. I’m not surprised because I know what kind of people that I work with. They came out in force and are still trying to help these families with these losses.

“One of the things we try to instill in our youth is generosity and also try to pair these kids with caring adults, some they did not know. And I think they’ve really seen the best in folks throughout this,” Harrison said. “This tornado took a 12-mile path and most every 4-H member knows somebody affected by the tornado. We had about 100 homes in the community hit and about 50 destroyed.”

4-H member William Axtell said it was a chance for the 4-H’ers to give back to the community when it was in need. Axtell said he’d never seen such devastation except on television noting trees on houses, roofs gone and houses gone.

“It’s kind of surreal especially the first two or three days,” he said. “I’m thankful it didn’t happen to me, and my heart goes out to those it did.”

Axtell said Harrison got the passes needed to enter the stricken area and organized the cleanup.

“We cut trees, moved debris and furniture out of people’s houses,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for Tommy and other 4-H volunteers, we probably wouldn’t have been able to do all that we did because of the laws. We thank them for all they did to help us. We thank Tommy for helping us to help other people. Some have cried, some say thank you and some don’t say anything at all, but we’re not in it for the pats on the back or the thank yous. We’re just doing it to help people, because we feel it’s what we need to do.”

Devon Harris, a 4-H horse club member, said she was out of school because of the storm and felt a lot better being able to help.

“Since this has happened it’s brought everybody together,” she said. “When Tommy asked us to help out and I showed up, there were so many more people there than I expected there to be. It’s just brought everybody together.”

Emily Boggess, a 4-H teen club member, said it’s just been amazing how many people have come out to help.

“Churches have been giving out food,” she said. “People have been handing out blankets. The Red Cross has set up at churches, and just a bunch of regular people are coming out to volunteer.”

Tara Ford, an adult volunteer leader for the 4-H horse club, said the teens have definitely improved on their teamwork skills and learned to be grateful for what they have and didn’t lose.

“They’ve also learned to be a little more courteous and more helpful and what hard work actually is,” she said. “They have all benefited so much. They’ve worked their hearts out.”

Ford said the teens really wanted to give back to a community that has been supportive of them for so many years.

“It’s difficult sometimes to find children who would give so wholly of themselves, but the children we have involved in 4-H here in Muhlenberg County, they really do give their whole hearts back to their community when they are called upon,” she said.

During the cleanup effort the horse club has gotten somewhat attached to one family and are going to continue to help them get their home back on its foundation and rebuild its deck, Harrison said. Other efforts are also in the works.

The horse club also is planning a spaghetti supper to raise money for the tornado victims. Each of the 4-H clubs in the county also is involved in fundraising efforts for the Red Cross that will go into full swing in March, he said.

Harrison said he was proud of the 4-H members and their efforts but also noted many groups have worked long and hard as well to help victims of the early February storms.