Garner is only one of many whose lives were left in ruins among the rest of the debris last year who made it a point to repay the community’s kindness a year later.
“When we were affected on April 27, we received a lot of help. We tried to write down names of people but we couldn’t because there were so many — and lots of strangers as well whose names we never knew — who offered to help,” she said.
Kind people helped the Garner family salvage their possessions and move to temporary housing.
“Because of that, we were not able to help anyone else and there were so many families affected,” she said. “We were helpless. We were relying on others to help us.”
Almost a year later, the Garner family is still building their new house in English Oaks subdivision on the same lot where they lived before the funnel made a north and easterly track through English Oaks off Old Parksville Road and onward into Chatata Valley.
Where the Garners live is almost symbolic of life. It’s a pretty lot, but it will be scarred for many, many years with fallen, mangled trees. A sidewalk forms a path to steps that once led to the front door of their neighbor’s house that is not being rebuilt. The steps now lead to an empty basement open to the sky. Three homes in the neighborhood had to be completely demolished and two others were gutted and rebuilt.
Their lot is located at the end of a long street on a circle, which is in some respects also symbolic of life.
“On March 2, thankfully we weren’t affected at all, but there were still several families in Cleveland that were and that was our way of paying back,” Garner said. “My husband and I were really moved to reach out and help anybody that needed it.”
When she heard Jim and Liz Gibbons’ rental house on Candies Creek Lane was destroyed, “My heart broke for them because when our house was hit, we had insurance that helped us and paid for everything.
“They were precious. They had the best attitude. They were very calm and I admired that because I don’t think that I was,” Garner said. “I remember being frantic. I remember that sense of panic: What am I going to do? Where am I going to live? Where are my kids going to go to school? When I spoke to Mrs. Gibbons, she just knew God had a plan and he was going to take care of them. It was more of an honor than anything else to help.”
One of the groups who helped the Garners in 2011 were 17 members of the Higgins Memorial United Methodist Church youth group from Burnsville, N.C. They came to Bradley County again on April 13 to clean up new debris left by the March storm and returned to the Garner home to continue with that effort.
Connie Wright, United Methodist Church Volunteers In Missions coordinator for the Cleveland District, said the youth group was not the first on the scene in 2011, but was the first to call the volunteer hotline.
“I know there were other groups here immediately after the tornado, but this is the first group we have a record of calling and filling out the online volunteer form,” she said. “To have this group come back a year later is just such a blessing. It is absolutely a blessing to have this group come back.”
Renee Weeks, one of the youth group’s adult supervisors, said the kids wanted to help again this year while they were on spring break from school.
“They liked the feeling they got last year after they helped someone. They got to see what working hard for someone else did for them. We are taught in the Bible to be a servant and to help others and that’s what we’re willing to do,” Weeks said.
Higgins United Methodist Church is active in missions and sends a group to Guatemala on a regular basis. This year though, they chose to work within driving distance of home.
“It’s something we can do in a day, spend the night and feel like we get a lot accomplished,” she said.
Burnsville in a mountainous area and has never been struck by a tornado, but does have floods and while there are needs in their hometown and the church is involved with Habitat For Humanity, a soup kitchen and prison ministry, “sometimes you need to get outside of your community and that helps you come back inside your community,” Weeks said.
As the group cut and piled brush, Wright observed fallen trees lying in all directions and in wonderment, remarked that the scene earlier in the month looked like new damage instead of something that happened a year earlier.
“This looks like it just happened. That is what is so unbelievable — that we have so much damage here in Bradley County and a lot of work has already been done,” she said.
The other homes in English Oaks have been rebuilt, with the exception of the Garners’ home and that of their next-door neighbor. The most obvious damage is the broken trees. Though the neighborhood has made advances in trying to clear properties, Garner said it will take a long, long time.
“I don’t know if we ever will get it completely cleared, but we’re doing the best we can,” she said.