Mayflower Middle School gym is hub for donations; first-responders help out in Vilonia

By Tammy Keith Published May 4, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Students Ben Deierlein, 15, clockwise from left, a Mayflower High School student; Zoey Patterson, 10, a Vilonia Primary School student; and Lily Dycus, 9, a Mayflower Elementary School student, sort and fold clothes in the Mayflower Middle School gymnasium.

MAYFLOWER — Cindy Webb pointed to the green cap she was wearing to explain how the Mayflower community was able to pull together after a tornado destroyed so much.

“With faith,” she said, gesturing to her hat, which had the word ‘Faith’ embroidered on the bill and a sparkling cross. “We’re doing it with faith. We’ve got a lot of good helpers and community people. You just do what you gotta do.”

Webb was in the Mayflower Middle School gym sorting donations with dozens of other volunteers of all ages.

She said donations had been brought in since the tornado ripped through the community Sunday night and killed three people.

“It’s just unbelievable. People have just poured in. It’s a blessing,” Webb said.

“Our community has really rallied,” Superintendent John Gray said.

The gym was opened Sunday as a shelter for people whose homes were destroyed, and about 20 people spent the night, he said.

“We actually started in the high school gym, but when we heard there was a second wave of storms, we moved to the middle school — we have a 600-person shelter underneath the complex,” Gray said. “We were in the high school about an hour; then we moved across to the middle school.”

It was a makeshift shelter, just pillows and blankets, but “people got through the night,” Gray said.

The gym transitioned to a hub for donations.

Lily Dycus, 9, sat folding donated clothes in the gym with Zoey Patterson, 10, and Ben Deierlein, 15, a student at Mayflower High School.

“We felt helpless at home, so we decided to come,” Lily said of herself and her sister.

In addition to clothes, shoes were lined up on bleachers, snacks were organized by type, bedding was in another area, and other donations were neatly placed on tables.

“If they have babies, we have diapers,” Webb said.

Kerri Fortson, 22, who graduated from Mayflower High School two years ago, was also helping.

“We started off making hamburger patties, and we’re helping them load the Army trucks. People are here sorting everything out,” she said.

Fortson said the tornado didn’t damage her home or her parents’ home near Cato.

“We could see it, but it passed right by us,” she said.

Outside, dozens of people formed an assembly line to pass cases of water to members of the Arkansas National Guard, who were loading trucks with the water to deliver to the community.

Kitty Gray, wife of the superintendent, looked across the parking lot.

“It’s been like that since 10 o’clock,” she said Monday afternoon. “They’re taking a negative and turning it into a positive affair. What I think it is, everyone feels so helpless; this is the way they can work out their sadness,” Kitty said.

Hamburgers had been cooked and were available to those who came to get donations.

“What we’re doing now and trying to keep up with is feeding the workers, the people in the homes,” John Gray said.

Tornado survivors seem touched by the kindnesses, too, Kitty said. “People are going, ‘Really? You’re giving us all this help?’”

In Vilonia, the senior citizens center was a hub of activity Monday as volunteers and first-responders were being served lunch.

It was organized by the Vilonia Disaster Recovery Alliance, formed after the 2011 tornado.

Sandy Towles, coordinator, said the alliance has been meeting for three years, since the 2011 tornado.

The building where the group met, and where the alliance’s papers were kept, “blew away.”

Lorenda Gantz, an alliance volunteer, greeted many of the people and asked them to sign their names on a sheet, just to keep count.

Brian McCoy, owner of McCoy’s Tree Service, came in, looking exhausted.

“You look like you’re about to pass out,” Gantz said. She directed him to sign in and get something to eat.

Jim Davis, 79, of Vilonia was sitting at a table talking about the storm with people who came in.

“Some giant came through here and stepped on everything,” he said.

Davis said he was in bed with his dog when the tornado hit.

“I’m old enough that if it gets me, it gets me,” Davis said. “Oh, I heard it. Me and my dog, we just rolled up against the wall.”

Part of his roof ended up next door, he said. “Our son-in-law, his house is completely gone,” Davis said.

Sean Lewis, 23, of Conway, a member of the Army National Guard Bravo Company 2-153 Infantry out of Batesville, came into the center on Monday.

“We’re actually here on free will doing what we can. Our unit’s on standby. I’m about to downgrade into civilian clothing,” he said, wearing his fatigues.

He said his family’s home in Quail Hollow received damage in the 2011 tornado, but this time the tornado bypassed the subdivision.

Towles said people are “devastated, coming in in tears and cannot believe it hit the same place again. Nobody’s coming in saying [Vilonia’s] gone — that spirit is still here. I can tell you that. I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘We’re gone.’”

On April 27, she was at church when the tornado was bearing down on Vilonia, Towles said.

“What I saw, the little kids who experienced it before were horrified. The girls (teachers) started singing, ‘Jesus Loves Me’ with them.”

Towles said people take tornadoes more seriously now.

“Even me, I used to stand outside and chase them,” she said. “Now, I say to Clifford (her husband), ‘You are going to the safe room, aren’t you?’”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or

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