Illinois State seniors Calvin Lynch and Nick Streicher couldn’t sleep.
It was Tuesday night, May 21, just one day after a violent EF5 tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, killing 24 people, including seven children. The roommates, who stayed in Bloomington-Normal this summer for work and classes, spent Tuesday following news coverage of the destruction, overwhelmed by what they saw and wondering how they could help.
By the time Streicher texted Lynch on Wednesday morning asking if he was free for a Memorial Day weekend road trip to Moore, Lynch had watched a YouTube video shot in one of the hardest-hit areas, in which a child is heard screaming for his lost mother.
“It just broke my heart,” Lynch told STATEside. “That was one of the main reasons I just jumped right on with (Nick), and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going, let’s do it.’”
From debris removal to boarding up homes to cheering up a child who lost his best friend, Lynch and Streicher said their two days in Moore were life-changing—mostly because of the people they met.
But even impromptu college road trips take some planning. Streicher and Lynch offered to take any supplies people wanted to donate to Moore, reaching out to friends on Facebook and past and current employers for donations. By Thursday, they had so many water bottles, diapers, flashlights, and other supplies that they wouldn’t fit in their vehicle, so they had to borrow a big pickup truck and an 18-foot trailer.
“It was about as full as the tires could take,” said Lynch, an animal industry management major from Cissna Park.
On the ground
They arrived in Moore on Saturday morning after a 12-hour drive, but were bounced around until finally finding an old shopping center to drop off their supplies. Later Saturday, they began to tour the destruction for the first time. It was even worse than what they saw on the news.
“It was pretty surreal,” said Streicher, a horticulture major from Plainfield.
Streicher and Lynch weren’t there to just survey the damage. They met up with a group of veterans called Team Rubicon that does disaster relief, helping them board up a damaged home. Lynch stepped into a child’s room with bunk beds, filled with mud, glass, and other debris.
“I didn’t really know what to think,” Lynch said. “That was when it really hit me, like, wow, we’re actually down here doing this. We are actually making a difference.”
Even with so much physical destruction, the friends quickly learned firsthand how tremendous the loss of life was in Moore. On Sunday night, they were helping clean out a badly damaged home. The homeowner’s daughter was there, along with her 9-year-old son, a student at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died in the tornado. The boy’s best friend was killed.
“You know that people died, and you know that people are suffering, but you don’t realize who they are until you meet them,” said Lynch. (A photo of the family is atop this story.)
The roommates camped out the first night on cots inside their trailer. On the second night, a woman who they worked alongside all day bought them a hotel room to show her thanks. After two days of work and completely covered in insulation, a real shower—not just rinsing off with a jug of water—was welcome.
As they hit the road Monday, they felt guilty returning home to a nice apartment with running water and electricity. On the back window of their truck were proud signs for “Illinois State” and the letters of Lynch’s fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho. Streicher sported an Illinois State shirt for much of the trip.
“It was almost a testament to the University itself,” Streicher said.
For Lynch, who grew up doing lots of volunteer work in his small town, and whose father is a longtime volunteer firefighter, the decision to travel to Moore was easy.
“Not going wasn’t even an option,” he said. “It’s just the way both of us were raised.”
Other Illinois State helpers
Lynch and Streicher weren’t the only Illinois State students in Oklahoma.
Jordan Romager and two other participants in the LeaderShape program in the Dean of Students Office, Jaime Merdinger and Ryan Jones, also made the trek. They were joined on their May 24-27 trip to Oklahoma by Romager’s mom, brother, and two friends.
The group worked at the Shawnee Absentee Tribe Resource Center in Norman, Oklahoma, and helped with debris removal and attended a memorial service at a local church. Instead of camping out, they were allowed to stay in the home of the Norman fire chief.
“We were taught (in LeaderShape) to have a ‘healthy disregard for the impossible,’ and the idea of taking such a last-minute trip to Oklahoma with little plans and lots of good intentions seemed like a perfect way to live out that idea in a positive way,” said Romager.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.