When most people take a vacation they go somewhere to relax – a warm sandy beach, a secluded cabin nestled in nature’s lush vegetation, or any other place that offers peace and the freedom to do nothing. For Tony Groce, P1 Group human resources generalist, his most recent vacation came with a bit of a twist.
After waking up one morning, Tony wasn’t sure what hit him. There were no bumps or bruises. No cuts. No physical pain of any kind. Instead Tony felt an emotional turbulence of empathy churning inside him. Tony admits after initially watching on TV the devastation caused by the Joplin, Missouri tornado he wanted to visit for mere curiosity’s sake. But quickly that curiosity turned to a deep desire to help the thousands of families whose lives had been uprooted so undeservingly.
Not knowing anyone from the Joplin area, Tony turned to the Internet to find out how to get involved. Tony searched and came across the AmeriCorps website, a sanction of United Way. After registering, they put him in touch with America’s 911 Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based First Responders support team.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Tony drove three hours to Joplin and embarked on a five-day relief effort. In preparation, he brought with him 25 cases of water and all the clothes he could buy from two garage sales to donate to the survivors. Because there were no hotel rooms or camp ground spaces available within an hour of any direction, Tony slept the entire week in his Suburban truck. True to his always positive attitude, he said it wasn’t a big deal.
“Some residents slept under the stars,” Groce said.
To kick off his volunteer work, Tony’s team headed to the local college to pick up work orders from families that requested assistance. Despite the chaos, there was a surprisingly systematic process to the relief.
“We couldn’t go on property before the insurance adjuster got there,” Groce said. “They spray painted codes on all of the houses and cars. For example ‘X1’ meant one person, ‘X’ meant no body, ‘K9’ meant pet, and ‘LK9’ meant lost pet.”
Tony started his days at 7 am and typically didn’t finish helping until 6:30 pm. One of his main duties was to separate debris and rubble by treated wood, lumber, trash and recyclable metals.
“You feel like you busted your butt, but it looks like nothing has been touched,” Groce said. “It’s going to take a long time to clean up. Looking at it on TV is like apples to oranges to what’s actually here.”
Navigating to the correct houses was another challenge. He said he had to rely heavily on his Garmin GPS to find his way around because there were no street signs or numbers.
One of the more touching aspects of the trip was helping families search for their important belongings. Tony said he helped an older woman find a necklace that her recently deceased husband has just given her. After seeing her breakdown and the appreciation she had, there was no way to keep back the tears. In another instance, he stumbled upon and successfully rescued a whimpering dog that had been trapped in its doghouse.
“I got constant hugs from strangers,” Groce said. “I was brought water, Gatorade and food all the time. The people there were so nice trying to help. I kept thinking it was kind of backwards, I was like ‘What can I do to help you?’ ”
When the week was over and Tony finally returned to his own home, he recalls having a powerful moment of appreciation for the simple things in life.
“I was so happy to have a house, a car, A/C…” Groce said. “I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking about everything I saw. I was doing pretty good until you think of the people, that’s where it gets you.”
While this was Tony’s first trip of this nature, he said he intends to go back to Joplin in the fall. For him, the term vacation has developed a slightly new meaning. It’s about the freedom to help and finding peace in knowing everything is going to be alright.
Photos taken by Tony Groce
By Ken Erickson