CEDAR RAPIDS — Anna Tuuri may have been, as she put it, “volun-told” by her father, Dan, the first time she showed up to help at the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Center in the days after the Aug. 10 storm tore through Cedar Rapids, but she’s been showing up by choice ever since.
The teen — who turned 15 on Sept. 16 — has put in hundreds of hours and become one of the center’s core crew of volunteers. That first day, someone handed her a sign-in sheet for volunteers and sent her around to make sure people were checked in. As she started organizing the volunteers, day after day, she also started taking on more responsibility, something she said she has enjoyed.
“I just kept doing it. I enjoyed it. At first I didn’t think I really would, but I kind of took on more of a role of checking volunteers in, and that’s more what I like to do — managing people and taking control of a situation,” she said.
She said for three weeks after the storm, she was there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days, because there was always so much to do. The Marion High School sophomore has had to cut back a bit since school started, but she still comes in a couple of times a week to answer the hotline, coordinate volunteers and do other tasks.
“It’s honestly just a lot of fun. I like the relationships I’ve made, talking to people and making friends with 30-year-olds,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy, I never expected I would be one of the people in charge. It’s kind of crazy people listen to me when I’m only 15.”
The resource center sprung up as a grassroots storm relief effort that grew from the Iowa Derecho Response Facebook group Raymond Siddell started. As people began posting needs and others posted things they had to give, he invited them to meet up at his Keller Williams real estate office, thinking it would be “a small trading post.” It quickly became clear it would be much bigger, and he moved locations and created a fully fledged resource center, collecting and distributing everything from food and toiletries to tarps for roofs.
“When I started the group, the next day I woke up and there were 100 people in it. And then in 24 hours there were over 10,000 people,” he said. “The group went from ‘Here’s my disaster,’ to ‘Here’s what I need.’ What I realized very quickly was people just wanted to access the things they needed.’
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The Facebook group now has more than 68,000 members, and the resource center has since moved again, to a former McGrath Auto warehouse at 4001 First Ave. SE. They recently put up a plywood wall inside one side of the building so they could have a place for volunteers and people using their services to be indoors as the weather turns colder — previously they would wait outside the building. In addition to food and other supplies, people can get a hot cooked meal twice a week, 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and noon to 2 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. Saturdays.
In addition to school, Tuuri plays soccer, wrestles, coaches adaptive soccer and is on the Five Seasons Ski Team. She also hosts a podcast about soccer, “Keep the Game Beautiful.” And she’s also taking classes at Kirkwood Community College and an ACT preparation class. She’s verbally committed to play soccer at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point after high school and said she hopes to become a special-education teacher.
“Being able to come here and laugh a little bit and have fun — it takes me away from thinking about school and homework,” she said. “I’ll come back as much as I can.”
Tuuri helps coordinate a database of volunteers they’ve set up, which she said she helped organize. Volunteer numbers have slowed down now, almost two months after the storm, and the center recently cut back its hours — it is open 4 to 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and noon to 6 p.m. Saturday. But the need still is there. Tuuri said one of the most frequent requests they get is help clearing trees.
“A lot of the city still is not cleaned up. We’re always needing tree work volunteers,” she said. “The need is getting longer, but the volunteer list is getting shorter.”
The center is hosting a volunteer tree cleanup day Sunday. Tree removal can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars and often isn’t covered by insurance.
Siddell said the number of people who still come to the center, or call the hotline looking for help, shows that even as other disaster support operations have wrapped up, many people are finding it hard to get back on their feet. The center has no income restrictions on who it will help.
“There’s a huge gap between those who qualify for food assistance and those who don’t, but still need help,” he said. “There are people who never suffered before now who are finding themselves in hard financial situations or facing foreclosures or housing trouble, who are having trouble feeding their family the way they are used to.”
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The Resource Center also has accepted financial donations in a partnership with Iowa Giving Crew, and Siddell said they’ve applied for 501(c) 3 status of their own.
People can seek help or sign up to volunteer at iowastormhelp.com, or by contacting (319) 432-9754 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. People can make financial donations via Venmo @iowaderecho or PayPal: email@example.com.
Even with running his own business, Cedar River Ink, working with Keller Williams, raising his two kids and serving on three other nonprofit boards, Siddell said he can’t quit on the resource center.
“The phone rings every day with people looking for help. We could be around indefinitely, as long as the resources are available,” he said.
Volunteers like Tuuri help make that possible.
“She’s definitely had a big impact. The volunteers have done an amazing job,” Siddell said.
“People showed up and have continued to show up, day after day.”
Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org
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