IOWA DERECHO 2020

Mormon Helping Hands volunteers returning to Cedar Rapids for weekend work

Helping Hands volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clear a path from porch to curb along Seve
Helping Hands volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clear a path from porch to curb along Seventh Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids on Saturday. These workers came from Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Iowa City and Utah. Crews will be back in town this weekend to continue offering their free labor working up tree debris on the ground. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Sitting on my porch swing Saturday morning, catching some early light and fresh air as I searched for the city’s latest tree debris updates, my anxiety level began to rise.

Contrary to what I had read earlier, I discovered I would need to move all the limbs that fell from a city tree into the space between my sidewalk and curb. They were too heavy and too tangled for me to drag.

Near tears, I looked up to see two young men in yellow T-shirts headed my way. I jumped up, raised my arms in a touchdown salute and yelled “thank you” before they even opened their mouths.

I just knew they were coming to help me. And I was right.

“Do you need help?”

“YES!”

Their shirts said “Mormon Helping Hands.” They assured me they would be back with a team bearing chain saws and rakes, to tackle the limbs blanketing my front lawn. (My kind next-door neighbors had previously cut me a path from porch to curb, which also helped immensely.)

I asked about the cost, then fought back tears as I croaked out my gratitude when they said, “No charge.”

They were working at another house first, but assured me they would be back shortly with their team.

What a welcome sight about 30 minutes later when five men and one woman — from Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Utah — rounded the corner onto Seventh Avenue SE, with two chain saws and rakes.

In about five minutes they were done with my yard and moving two doors down to cut a swath from steps to curb for a household that has several people recovering from surgeries.

Helping Hands

In the aftermath of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and, now, our derecho storm, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mobilizes its members and missionaries from all over the country to offer free labor to their members in affected areas, then on to neighbors in need. Some had been called home from missions abroad as the pandemic shut down international travel.

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About 300 volunteers worked between this past Saturday and Sunday, and even more are coming this weekend, said Susan Sims of Cedar Falls, who handles communications for the church in most of Iowa and western Illinois, and was coordinating relief efforts in Cedar Rapids.

Relief teams typically have four to eight workers, determined by the work orders they’ve received. This past Saturday, they didn’t have a work order for Fourth Avenue SE, so they sent 12 people to walk the area, looking for opportunities to help.

“When it’s a job we don’t know, we’ll usually send try to send two to four pullers for every chain saw, but if we get the go-ahead to go into a neighborhood, we might send six chain saws and two pullers for a whole neighborhood and just walk the streets to see what we can do,” Sims said.

She and her colleagues have been working with social service agencies in Cedar Rapids to determine areas of need, and will be focusing on Wellington Heights and Oakhill Jackson neighborhoods this weekend.

“We’ll be sending just lots of boots on the ground into those neighborhoods and clearing whatever we can,” Sims said.

Work capabilities

“We can clear something that’s as big as what maybe you can hug. Our chain saws don’t get that much bigger. We won’t take something off of someone’s roof, and we won’t tarp there, although we may have a partner with us this next weekend that will do that,” she said.

“And we don’t want to move stuff that an insurance adjuster hasn’t seen, because we don’t want to impact someone’s ability to get insurance.”

Helping Hands volunteers also cleared tree debris around the African American Museum of Iowa in southeast Cedar Rapids, and are willing to extend a hand to other nonprofits and neighborhoods, as well as people who are elderly, have disabilities or income barriers. Those requests can be emailed to her at sims.susanm@gmail.com

“We will have a lot of people coming in. They can put a lot of muscle into any affected neighborhood,” she said.

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“We’re just trying to help people who really, really need the help first — small yards, can’t get out of their garage, or the elderly who can’t pull (tree debris) to the curb for the city to come pick it up from their yard.”

They aren’t equipped to clear acreages, however. “There’s a time for that and a place for that, but these are just members of our church — we’re not professionals ... and we mobilize whenever there’s a disaster like this.”

All the work is free, and they can’t accept donations for their efforts.

“We’re just here to volunteer,” she said.

Reactions

While their church members know they will be coming, the random people like me are so appreciative, Sims noted.

“One of our crew did come across a woman who was quite despondent and didn’t know where to turn. And the help that they provided her lifted her and made her feel like there was hope for the future,” she said.

Others want to talk about the changing landscape of their lives.

“A lot of the response we’re getting is people needing to tell the story of trees they’ve lost and the damage to the homes, and how things have changed for them,” She said. “They’re grateful that people come who are just willing to give them a helping hand, obviously, and can listen to their story. ... They still don’t have power — we can’t restore that. Sometimes they still don’t have food, and I don’t have that on our trucks.

“We do what we can, and that relieves one burden so that they can face the other burdens.”

The volunteers are buoyed, as well.

“We ship them all out in their nice, clean, yellow shirts and they all come back absolutely filthy,” she said. “Sometimes their shirts are torn, and they’re sunburned, but they come back absolutely beaming. They are so happy to know that they had a chance to help someone. Maybe the help we’re giving is relatively small in the big disaster, but our volunteers are positively thrilled. They came back the next day to give it again. They’ll come back again next week.

“We love helping. We really love helping people and love doing it with no expectations for anything in return,” she said. “Because of COVID, we haven’t been able to meet in our congregations and worship. So coming together in this way as we are doing, heals us on so many levels, so we absolutely love doing it.”

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Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

How to get help

• What: Helping Hands, from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

• When: Volunteer crews with chain saws and rakes will return to Cedar Rapids on Saturday and Sunday for working up brush, limbs, small trees on the ground — not bringing down trees or climbing on roofs

• Cost: Free

• Inquiries: Some teams may be able to pick up extra work not already scheduled. Email sims.susanm@gmail.com. priority given to nonprofit agencies and people who are elderly, have disabilities or financial needs

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