'Look for the helpers': Good deeds, large and small, blanket Cedar Rapids after derecho

Shannon Appleby (left) makes sandwiches with Veronica Griffin, a waitress at Jimmy Z's Bar & Grill, 112 Second St SE, in
Shannon Appleby (left) makes sandwiches with Veronica Griffin, a waitress at Jimmy Z's Bar & Grill, 112 Second St SE, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. On Thursday, Aug. 13, Appleby made and distributed 300 sandwiches, along with cold bottles of water, chips and fruit, to residents cleaning up from the Aug. 10 derecho storm. Appleby isn't physically able to cut and carry downed trees and limbs, but said he wanted to do something for his fellow Cedar Rapidians. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — In times of trouble, look for the helpers.

That’s the advice Fred Rogers, better known as the congenial children’s TV host Mr. Rogers, was famous for saying. He said his mother told him to “always look for the helpers” when disaster strikes. “If you look for the helpers, you will know that there’s hope,” he said.

People in Cedar Rapids haven’t had have to look far to find helpers since the Aug. 10 derecho tore through town with hurricane-force winds. Moments after the storm passed, while people were still struggling to understand the extent of the damage, neighbors were out in the streets helping each other. Citizen brigades started clearing roads and directing traffic around debris. Strangers helped each other clean up fallen trees and moved branches for those who couldn’t open their front doors.

As the days passed, people started showing up from out of town with chain saws and vans full of ice and food and diapers and charcoal. Sports teams, church groups, individuals, families; some came with organized groups, others just saw the need and started driving, compelled to help.

Large organizations like United Way and HACAP sprang into action, but so did countless grassroots efforts. Facebook groups like Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page were flooded with offers of assistance, and volunteers showed up by the hundreds to help sort and distribute supplies.

Others headed to the new Percy and Lileah Harris Public Health building, where so many donations poured in they had to suspend accepting them. Advocates for Social Justice, which formed this spring as a Black Lives Matter group, set up tables to hand out supplies in hard-hit neighborhoods.

Feed Iowa First lost its cooler space but still worked to get fresh produce out to community members, storing perishable vegetables at the Bohemian, a not-yet-opened restaurant, when its power came back. Other restaurants handed out free meals and gave away bags of ice as fast as their ice makers could handle it.

People also were simply helping their neighbors. Gazette photographer Jim Slosiarek met Darlene Crawford, Chevelle Thomas and others while he was photographing damage at Westdale Court Apartments on the southwest side of town this week. Crawford turned her apartment into a “camping condo” and took kids from the badly damaged apartment complex under her wings. Thomas helped deliver meals and ice to his neighbors. His mother used $1,000 of her SNAP benefits to buy food and cook for her neighbors off her two grills. Even as people were struggling, they weren’t hesitating to help each other.


“That restores my hope in humanity, for sure,” Slosiarek said. “From our perspective, it’s overwhelming. Every corner you turn, there are people and stories out there, and stories we don’t even know about.”

To try to hear some of those stories, The Gazette put out a call this week for readers to share some of the acts of kindness, small and large, that they witnessed. Here are just a few, edited for length and clarity. We know they represent hundreds, if not thousands, of other acts of kindness committed over the past two week.

Andrea Wilson, who lives in Iowa City, wanted to highlight the efforts of Joshua and Samantha Booth. Several other readers also praised their work: “It was four days after the storm hit, on Thursday, and I was anxious to find a way to help. We weren’t getting much information on people in Cedar Rapids. Then I saw Josh and Samantha Booth posting that they had been gone out to Wellington Heights and found people who didn’t have access to food, whose children were afraid at night because they were living in darkness. I asked if I could join their crew, and on Friday we met and went back. They had a car full of hot sandwiches, cold water, and battery-powered lights. We drove through the streets, and people ran out to us. Josh and Sam made a point of asking everyone how they were and telling them how sorry they were for the struggle of this time. The kind words along with the home made food — you could tell it raised people’s spirits so much. ... Their crew has been out every day since. People donate, and everything they receive has gone back into supplies. The latest has been a huge supply of battery-operated fans and tents for those without homes. ... Their work, their open hearts, helping those in need without question or judgment and welcoming all who want to join ... this is the very best human spirit.”

Janet Slimak shared her thanks to a group of veterans: “They did a ton of work on all the downed trees in our yard and then kept helping others in our neighborhood. Thanks to Salute to the Fallen Foundation with Misti and John Thompson, Logs4Heros with Anthony Martin, Coffee and Camaraderie with Jen and Andy Schreiber, Chris Jones, James Nickerson, Michael Cox, Jeff Butler and any others who helped! ... Thank you for your service and for still serving!”

Samantha Fern gave a shout-out to Katy Gordon Brown: “(She) is basically taking the week off from work to be a station captain for Operation BBQ at the Johnson STEAM Academy, to organize and give hot meals at lunch and dinner ’til Saturday. She lives in Iowa City and didn’t have power until (last) weekend, and I saw her yesterday take people’s personal info, after giving hot food, and literally going to buy them shampoo, soap, etc., after to personally deliver. She’s amazing.”

Midge Barvinek shared how volunteers from neighbor Robin Blackford’s church took down a maple tree sitting on their roof: “I walked into the house and cried. We were grateful beyond words! An hour later Wendy and Andy and their two children showed up from Antioch Christian Church. Neighbors pitched in and removed what they could from the roof only to find a hole in the roof. ... We felt so blessed at this point, but the next morning, another group of volunteers showed up from Antioch Christian Church to take the rest of the tree down. Assistant Pastor Jeff Blackford and wife Robin sure took care of these two seniors! To say ‘thank you’ just doesn’t seem enough.”

Kristie Lukes shared how her sister Nancy Lukes-Jirak wanted to give back after the community helped her when her house flooded in 2008: “She has not forgotten the Cedar Rapids community, even though (she) and her family recently moved to Decorah. This past week Nancy and her 13-year-old daughter, Addy, have collected all kinds of donations, made several trips to Target and Walmart and spent Sunday afternoon helping wherever they were needed in Cedar Rapids. ... She knows firsthand what these Iowans are going through right now. And she is teaching her children what’s most important — giving back and being a positive part of one’s community.”

Val Overbeck thanked her friend Kate Campbell, who drove from Colorado to help: “(She) heard about the devastation and loaded her SUV with supplies from stores around Denver and literally drove here just to pass out tarps, food, kid supplies, flashlights, etc. I’m talking thousands of dollars, all packed into her vehicle. She stayed for days and dispatched her connections (I think family members) with skid loaders to just go help people — anybody who needed a tree moved. She had locals like me help distribute items. (She is a) literal angel who immediately recognized and acknowledged our need, and delivered instantly without a second thought.”


Greg White said he wanted to share a “not comprehensive list” of the ways people had helped his family. Even his abbreviated list was longer than we could print here, so we pulled some highlights: “We have a lot of privilege. We had trees down and no major damage to the house. There are many who are less fortunate than we are. But I wanted to acknowledge the people who came and helped us and our neighbors. My brother, Alex White from Omaha, drove here on Wednesday with a moving van full of chain saws, gas, food and other gear. He stayed with us through Sunday afternoon helping chop, haul, cook, clean, watch our 3-year-old, etc., at our house and friends houses. ... My in-laws, Brian and Deane Watters; after getting their stuff cleaned up last week, they couldn’t sit still for 10 minutes without asking who else they could help. They are in their 60s and late 70s. They are volunteering this week at the public health building and the library. ... My in-laws’ apartment tenants, Alexi & Rosa, who helped them clear their yard, then came to our house and helped us for a whole day cutting, hauling and raking.” He named many other friends and family and neighbors who helped, as well.

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude to these people and more,” he said.

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