It was a most unexpected event. Tornadoes on February 24 devastated much of Essex and Westmoreland Counties, affecting many lives. Some lost all they had, including their homes and everything inside. It was in the aftermath of this destruction that many on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula came together to help their neighbors, including RCC students and staff. Volunteers banned together to give storm victims some kind of normalcy.

Throughout the region, hotels opened their doors, restaurants held fundraisers, and folks from all parts got together to do what they could to lend a hand. With the professional firefighters, EMS, and police on the scene and requests for everyone else to stay away due to the danger posed by electrical and other hazards.

It was in this spirit that Pastor Larry Schools of Ephesus Baptist Church in Dunnsville organized donation efforts at the vacant Southern States warehouse on Tappahannock Boulevard.

Schools and his team transformed the building into the “Tornado Relief Center,” a storage facility and makeshift pickup center for storm victim donations. They created shelving for non-perishable items out of wooden boards and cinder blocks to create order for both those who were dropping off the donations and for those who would eventually come and pick up the food and supplies.

Due to the incredible generosity of people throughout the area, Pastor Schools’ dilemma became how to actually take in all of the donations and remain organized in a way that would benefit those who sought assistance. A call went out for volunteers to help in this organization effort. Students from Rappahannock Community College started posting on Twitter that they would like to volunteer. So on Sunday, February 28, students and staff from RCC arrived at the old Southern States building ready to pitch in.

“I am here because I want to help out and do the right thing,” said RCC student Paul Fuit of Williamsburg. “I don’t care what it looks like on my resume.”

Fuit and fellow RCC student Jade Duong of West Point met at the Glenns Campus earlier in the day to ride to Tappahannock. There they teamed up with Alonya Bates, an RCC student from the Warsaw Campus and got to work.

“Alright everyone — this is basically organized chaos!” Pastor Schools called out to the volunteers as they arrived. “All of your veterans, the people who helped out yesterday, work with the new folks.”

Though Schools seemed to be giving everyone a stern warning, he may have exaggerated a bit. Though there were a lot of piles and box pyramids, the team did such a fine job, that by mid-afternoon, there was a veritable wall of canned baked beans, three-feet deep and nearly seven-feet tall. Though the baked bean collection was impressive, the team of volunteers managed to do similar feats with toilet paper, water bottles, chicken soup, macaroni and cheese and much, much more.

RCC staff member Christine Stamper was on hand as well, working near the front doors of the old store, as part of the first line of folks who accepted the supplies.

“I am helping to sort of out some of the supplies,” said Stamper. “I was here yesterday also.”

Eventually, Schools and his leadership staff turned their efforts on getting the supplies out to those who were affected by the tornado’s destruction. RCC’s Bates was among those who used her car to shuttle some of the supplies out to those in need.

“I can tell you that my family and I are going to get together and get some blankets and towels and give it to the victims,” said Bates. “Obviously they need these things more than anyone now.

After the center closed for the evening, Pastor Schools sent out a message to the volunteers, saying that the Tornado Relief Center is filled to capacity and that only plastic tote boxes and financial donations will be accepted for the next few weeks.

“In order to better serve those who have been calling for volunteer hours, as well as items which we need, a website has been set up,” said Schools. “Each day we will be posting items needed and hours of operation during the week — with updated information.”

Though many of those who have helped out are not from Essex or Westmoreland, the common feeling throughout the Center these past days has been the same. Before she drove her car away from the scene, Alonya said what many had on their minds and were thinking as they carried boxes and stacked cans.

“I was blessed not to be affected by these terrible tornados,” said Bates. “They hit both counties — Westmoreland and Essex. I’m in Essex all the time and it’s so sad to see everything destroyed; and Tappahannock too. Even though I’m not from here, it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t help out. They are our brothers and sisters.”

MORE INFORMATION

  • RCC students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to donate to the cause. If you have nonperishable items, household items, clothing, feminine products, and diapers  that you would like to donate, you may place them in donation boxes at the Welcome Desk at either the Warsaw or Glenns campuses.  Donations will be accepted through the end of the day on Friday, March 4.

  • Contribute to the Tappahannock Tornado Relief Fund, operated by the Rotary Club of Tappahannock