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Volunteers descend on Mayflower, Vilonia after tornado

By Gavin Lesnick

This article was published April 30, 2014 at 1:52 p.m.

maree-coats-right-hands-out-lunch-at-a-destroyed-home-along-cemetery-road-wednesday-in-vilonia

Maree Coats, right, hands out lunch at a destroyed home along Cemetery Road Wednesday in Vilonia.

Volunteers help Vilonia tornado victims clean up

Hundreds of volunteers have ventured into heavily damaged parts of Arkansas after a deadly tornado swept through Sunday night. (By Gavin Lesnick)
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VILONIA — When John Lynch arrived to his antique and flea market after a tornado tore through the Main Street shopping center where it opened about a year ago, he couldn't even get in the front door.

The tornado winds had torn off the roof, blown in the windows, collapsed broken boards and insulation into the interior and thrown merchandise in every direction.

The prospect of clearing the debris just to get in, much less to sift through and find anything salvageable, may have seemed impossible. But soon people the 32-year-old Lynch didn't even know started to show up and pitch in. Then more did. And they didn't stop.

"You've never seen so many people pull together," Lynch said, standing Wednesday in the still very damaged but mostly clear space that was Rusty Gold Antiques and Flea Market. "We had an assembly line of people."

The volunteers came from all over the state and some even drove in from Mississippi. And messages and offers of help came from others, including fellow antique store owners, from as far away as Ontario, Canada.

"I just can't thank them enough," Lynch said, his voice heavy with emotion. "Just to be there in sprit is all we need."

Across the devastated Vilonia, hard-hit Mayflower and other areas in the path of Sunday's deadly tornado, volunteers were helping storm victims like Lynch almost immediately after the sky cleared that night.

And they were still helping out Wednesday as the cleanup effort continued into its third day. David Hogue, a county attorney and spokesman for Faulkner County, said hundreds of people had signed up to volunteer and the numbers were "growing by the minute."

Maree Coats, 39, was in Vilonia on Wednesday for the first day as part of a group of First Service Bank volunteers. They cooked a mess of hot dogs, packed them into lunch bags and then drove around Vilonia with the food in the back of a pickup, handing them out to utility workers, other volunteers, tornado victims and anyone else they came across.

Coats, who lives in Greenbrier, said joining the effort was an easy decision.

"Even though we're big rivals, we still see ourselves and put ourselves in their shoes," she said. "When you see that type of devastation and pain, you want to do anything you can do to help."

On Cemetery Road in Vilonia, Fidelity Information Services employees from Little Rock were helping residents of homes that were destroyed by the tornado. They worked to find items to save in the wreckage and to separate the destroyed parts of the homes into different piles for disposal.

Denise Thrower, a senior business analyst, said it was rewarding helping victims find photographs, dishware and other items, but also overwhelming to see the amount of loss.

"There was a house just over here that we were helping them look for jewelry and asked how their family members were and unfortunately they did not survive the storm," she said. "That was pretty tough. I had to finish there and move on. It was hard to be there, knowing somebody had lost their life."

Kim Shock, 42, a vendor at the antique store, called the volunteer response an "overabundance of love" that has moved her to tears several times since the tornado hit.

One of those times came after she was helping at a local church Tuesday where a man from Malvern "that no one even knew" showed up with his 4-year-old daughter and began "working just as hard as I've seen anybody ever work."

"He said I came up here today to be a blessing and to help people and I brought my little girl ... just so I could teach her what it's like and what she needs to do to help people," Shock said. "That was all day long. People just coming and saying, 'Can we help?'"

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