In Iowa: Flood of helpers transforms scars to strengths

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With hurricanes pummeling cities and whole islands alike and earthquakes burying school children in Mexico, it has been hard to watch the news lately. And those are just the natural disasters; we’ll leave the human-made ones for another column.

So I’ve been trying to follow the advice a good friend relayed recently, by way of Mr. Rogers, that comfortable sweater-wearing public television sage of our childhoods:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers,’ You will always find people who are helping,” he said.

Whether they were the volunteers who showed up with boats to rescue stranded residents in Houston or the rescue workers who sifted rubble through the night to find survivors in Mexico City, the helpers have been everywhere in the last month.

They reminded me of the helpers I’ve seen here at home. I wasn’t in Cedar Rapids for the 2008 flood, but I was in Iowa City as the sandbag lines formed along the Iowa River and a human chain moved rare books from the University of Iowa Main Library’s basement stacks. Last year, when the waters rose again, Cedar Rapids awed me with its all-out press to prevent a second flood crisis, as volunteers streamed out to build sandbag walls and evacuate the homes and businesses of friends and strangers alike.

The 2008 flood left scars, to be sure, but those scars left a community bound and determined to fight for itself and for its members. Scars can become strength, testaments to what we have survived. They can shape our futures, and how we chose to live them.

I’ve seen this reality in people who have suffered much deeper and more horrific scars than the ones floods leave, the kinds left by human cruelty instead of nature. I recently had the honor of interviewing Holocaust survivor Ivan Backer, though he doesn’t like to use that label; he never witnessed the horrors of a concentration camp, having escaped Czechoslovakia for England. But he said the British families who took him in and ensured his survival shaped the rest of his life, which he dedicated to activism and service.

I also have interviewed former refugees, now Iowans, who found new lives here in the Corridor after escaping war and horrors in their home countries. Many of them, too, have turned to service, looking for ways to give back and pay forward the help and welcome they were given.

It would be much better, of course, if none of that service was needed, if those scars never formed, if atrocities and hardship and loss were just bad dreams or the stuff of horror stories, the clown in the sewer, the monster in the Upside Down. But they’re not, and so we must continue to look for the helpers.

I’m hoping to write an article about the ongoing impact Cedar Rapids’ own helpers have had, now that it is almost a year since the 2016 flood and almost a decade since the flood of 2008.

Were you there, making sandwiches or hefting sandbags or moving seats from the Paramount Theatre? Or were you one of the helped, given assistance by those volunteers? How did those actions impact you — did they move you to become a volunteer yourself, or to pay it forward in some way? If you started volunteering during one of the floods, were you inspired to continue serving others after the waters receded?

Share your stories with me: email, and I’ll see what kind of story I can tell about our community. I think we could all use a little bit of inspiration these days.

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