A few days after the June 1 tornadoes hit western Massachusetts, a town meeting was held in Monson that was attended by FEMA representatives, who came in to help residents. Several families were without homes and shelter. Realtor Karen King remembers several Monson families being told that FEMA had little resources for assistance.
“I remember seeing a family at the meeting with just the shirts on their backs, from days ago when the tornado hit. They had nothing,” King said.
King approached FEMA representatives, explaining how she was a realtor and could help people find places to live. Eventually FEMA gave King a table at the meeting and she became the “housing person”. She placed several families in homes and today she has helped place town residents in 25 homes.
The devastating June 1 tornadoes left 60 homes completely destroyed in Monson, while 175 had some structural damage and 300 had some form of damage. Luckily for King, her home wasn’t in the path of the storm.
“Everyday I knew what I was going to do, when the tornado hit, I shut that off,” King said.
The day after the tornado, people began going to the First Church in Monson for food, water and toiletries. Families were without cars, food and some even without homes. June 2 was a nightmare to many in town.
However, there was something in the town of Monson that surrounding towns didn’t have, “Street Angels“ -- a volunteer group started by King.
“I realized that people needed help and I wanted to help them,” King said.
After attending FEMA meetings, King began making flyers with the numbers and names of places for people in need to contact. Geri Germain, a Monson resident for 44 years, describes the help King provided as invaluable.
"Our home wasn't livable and we needed somewhere to live," Germain said.
Germain didn't want to move but had no luck finding a home. King found them a place to live and convinced the landlords to settle on a month-to-month lease for the Germains.
"We wanted to keep our family together and Karen pulled the hat trick for us, she was an angel," Germain said.
From that moment forward, she was the leader of what is now the “Street Angels”.
Today, the “Street Angels” is comprised of eight Monson volunteers whose sole goal is to help with the recovery efforts throughout the town.
“It’s funny, I didn’t know any of the “Street Angels” beforehand,” King said. She met two of the “Street Angels” at the church in Monson and on July 1 started talking to volunteers via Facebook. Since then, the “Street Angels” have been working around the clock to help residents come together and rebuild their town.
Gail Morrissey, one of the 'Street Angels,' dedicates her weekends working for the volunteer group as well. Morrissey said she met King just after the tornado, but she knew of her as a strong community member.
"She's a wonderful lady with an amazing heart. Her mission of spreading hope is what we all aspire to do and that is really what the volunteer group is all about...spreading hope!" Morrissey said.
King has dedicated so much time to helping that she has put her career on hold for the moment.
“People will call me for anything and everything, I end up being the go-to person,” King said. “Sometimes it’s stressful but it’s so fulfilling.”
She recounts wishing for more volunteers in June because the town needed all the help it could get, however now there is an overwhelming number coming in.
“I need to be careful for what I wished for,” King said with a chuckle.
“Everyday’s a new challenge but it’s like Christmas everyday when I know I can help people.”
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About the authors
Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.