Oklahoma tornado brings volunteers from across the country to help Moore residents, storm victims

MOORE, Okla. - It was just before 3 p.m. Monday, May 20, when the sirens sounded in the town of Moore, Okla.  A tornado was coming. 

It was on the ground less than an hour, but the EF-5 twister caused millions -- quite possibly billions -- of dollars worth of damage, destroying homes, schools, a hospital and claiming 24 lives.

A day later the volunteers were there, having poured in from across the country.

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Donna Testa lives in Virginia near the beach.  She and her sisters spent last week packing up the belongings of their mother, who passed away in April.

Single mom Kim Thomas lives in Waco, Texas, a community not far from West, where an explosion at a fertilizer plant killed 14 people last month.

Don Ritchie, originally from New York, now makes his home in Springdale, Ark., where he drives a truck for Tyson Foods.

These are just three of the thousands of volunteers who came together to offer a helping hand to the people of Moore, Okla.

Here are a few of their stories.

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PHOTOS: The aftermath in Moore (http://bit.ly/may20photos)

The destruction is visible.  Homes gone.  Seventeen miles of rubble.

For days, cement barriers blocked the entrances to many of the neighborhoods.  Uniformed National Guard members stood watch, state troopers blocked roads and construction crews worked to repair power lines. 

Nails and other debris littered the streets, but Kim Thomas, a volunteer with the non-profit organization Mercy Chefs, weaved about in her small Toyota, handing hot meals to anyone she came across.

"Hi, we're with Mercy Chefs.  We're handing out hot plates.  Are you hungry?"

RELATED: How you can help Oklahoma tornado victims (www.kjrh.com/relief)

Formed after Hurricane Katrina, Mercy Chefs is completely donation-based, said Donna Testa, the head of donor relations.  They have three mobile kitchens stationed in different parts of the country, prepared for a three-week stay in the event they're needed.

In Moore, residents, first responders and construction workers alike are all appreciative of the warm meal and friendly face.  Whether they accept the gift of not, their response is always some version of "Thank you.  Thank you so very much for what you're doing."

"People say, 'Can I hug you?' They need that," said Thomas.

Since arriving Tuesday, Mercy Chefs volunteers from Wisconsin, Texas and Virginia, where the organization is based, have fed thousands of hungry people.

In just the past month, volunteers have responded to three different disasters -- West, Texas for the explosion, Granbury, Texas for a tornado and now Moore.

Testa's sisters, Sharon Teuber and Deb O'Sullivan, are volunteers too.  Together, they know what it's like to feel loss.  They lost their mother last month.

Through tear-soaked eyes, Testa said, "For us to be here, it helps us heal."

Volunteers like Thomas are the runners.

"We go out into neighborhoods, looking for people just standing there," she said.

Midway through her first delivery of the day, Thomas had three nails and a board stuck in one of her tires -- a hazard of the job.

Upon arrival in Moore, Mercy Chefs delivered the first meals to the hardest-hit areas of Moore.

"One neighborhood, there were no bricks, no wood, no dirt, no grass.  Nothing," said Thomas.

She says that's where they find the most people and hand out the most meals.

"Even if you're not in a horrible disaster zone, if they leave ... they're afraid they won't be able to get back," said Thomas. "It's a horrible situation for them."

Mercy Chefs is just one of the organizations set up at Southgate Baptist Church, where affected residents come to find food, water and other donated items.

There, Tyson Foods and the Volunteer Cook Team from Sherman, Texas fired up the grills, making burgers and other meals and sending food into the neighborhoods.

Tyson's Meals that Matter Disaster Relief Team, formed after Hurricane Sandy, was told Monday afternoon it was needed in Moore.  By Tuesday, driver Don Ritchie was there with food.

In just two days, Meals that Matter hauled in 70,000 pounds of Tyson products.

"It's awesome to be able to help the community," said Ritchie.

Ritchie says one of the company's drivers lives just two miles away from the church where they're serving those meals. 

"She was here Wednesday helping with the food, even though her home was damaged in the storm," he said.  "We're helping our own people."

With the food from Tyson, the Sherman group fed around 4,000 people in one day.

Ivan Golownjew, a member of the Volunteer Cook Team, said he was speechless Tuesday when he saw the damage.

"It's just a tragedy," said Golownjew.  "Whatever we can do to support them ... we want to help in any way we can."

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As the days pass, some of the volunteers will leave, others will fill their places.  But each group says they're prepared to stay until they're no longer needed.

After responding to disaster after disaster, Testa says she's confident the residents of Moore will find

their "new normal."  It just takes time.

For complete coverage on the Oklahoma tornadoes, visit www.kjrh.com/tornadoes .

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