The elves at American Legion Post 351 in Elberfeld, Ind., faced an urgent mission.
Across the border in Kentucky, their comrades were struggling in the aftermath of the Dec. 10-11 outbreak of more than 60 tornadoes that wreaked havoc in five states. Of the more than 90 fatalities, at least 77 were Kentucky residents. Many survivors have been displaced from their homes. Just getting underway is a massive recovery effort in what’s been called the largest ever tornado outbreak in December.
As the realization of the immense loss of life and property began to sink in, Air Force veteran Rusty Oeth vowed to assist. Oeth’s reason for wanting to do something is the same as why he has continued his service in the Kentucky Air National Guard. “I just like to help people.”
Oeth and Auxiliary unit Vice President Natalie Young hatched their plan at the post: His family farm business would handle the transportation of the items if her company would take care of collecting them.
Their goal was to fill one of the Oeth family’s 53-foot trailers and drive it an hour to a distribution point in Kentucky.
Six days later, community members came out in droves to drop off donations. They provided equipment like generators, tarps, chainsaws, wheelbarrows, rakes and shovels. There were pallets full of clothing for adults and children, and diapers and wipes for babies. Other donations included food, hygiene products and more.
Santa needed a bigger sleigh.
The community’s generosity filled not one, but two, 53-foot trailers.
“I can’t even understand how much stuff we got, or how far our message got out,” Young said. “One truck would have been success to me. But, holy cow, we got two trucks. That’s a Christmas miracle.”
The deliveries accomplished more than providing resources needed to clean up disaster areas, putting clothes on their neighbors’ backs and placing food on the table. They also will help make this season a bit more merry for good boys and girls.
“A lot of these people have nothing,” Oeth said. “We’re going to make Christmas happen for the folks in Kentucky.”
Oeth can imagine how special that would be. After all, he has a 3-year-old and another child on the way.
“I truly believe in Santa Claus,” he said. “Maybe not how it was when I was a kid but I believe miracles happen. And it’s people who make the miracles happen.”
Members of Post 6 in Madisonville, Ky., including Commander Tommy Omer, volunteered to help unload the items Dec. 18 at a large warehouse, which is among the drop-off sites around the state
“It’s just unbelievable all the support our community is getting,” Omer said. “Believe me, this is all going to be used. This just proves that the American Legion is a family.”
Indiana Commander Mark Gullion said the department assisted the Elberfeld post with a $10,000 donation.
“They have done a great job collecting items locally,” said Gullion, who accompanied the trucks to the drop-off site in Madisonville. “The community outpouring was outstanding. It’s heartwarming to see all this stuff coming down here.”
The effort is a public display to what The American Legion does daily, often without fanfare.
“It’s what we do — we strengthen America,” he said. “We help our brothers and sisters, and we help the community in general with fundraisers like this.”
The American Legion’s National Emergency Fund (NEF) also assists victims of natural disasters with immediate financial grants. Learn more about NEF and how to apply or make a contribution to help the victims in Kentucky.
Oeth, who is the Post 351 chaplain, wasn’t surprised by the size of the donation. It’s just the culture that unites his town of 732 residents.
“We do what we can do to help others,” he said. “Our community is great. I truly believe when we dream something up, our community comes and helps the team. That’s our small community coming together in a time of need. We want to be a small town helping a small town.”
Oeth and Young have known each other since their early childhood days. That’s when their involvement with Post 351 began. While in elementary school, they were named king and queen during a special Christmas party hosted by the post.
“We all look out for each other, and I feel that is what community is,” she said. “I know if my family were in a situation, I could depend on my Legion family to show up to pick up the slack or help any way they could.”
The tornadoes hit especially hard in some of Kentucky’s smallest communities.
“There are small ones there that got totally wiped out, that we can relate to more, being a smaller community,” Young explained. “We’re making a point to reach out to Dawson Springs and that area knowing that a lot of other supplies and resources are going to bigger communities. We wanted to support a town that is similar to us. If we got wiped off the map, we’d want someone to look out for us.”