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Residents across Western Mass. looking to 'pay it forward'

Posted by Anna Meiler  March 7, 2012 09:00 AM

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Jason Dimitropolis, a Wilbraham firefighter and paramedic, worked around-the-clock as a first responder after the June 1 tornadoes hit Western Massachusetts. After experiencing the tragedy himself, he feels a connection to the tornado victims in the Midwest.

“We’re all in this together no matter where we’re from,” he said.

His line of work is one where you act. So on Monday he boarded a plane to Indiana to help with the relief effort in Henryville where a category EF-4 tornado hit on Friday. He brought only a backpack with a few changes of clothes, food and donations such as gift cards, compact lens kits and towels to bring to victims.

Where is he going to sleep? He doesn't know. But, he packed a hammock just in case.

"If you know someone involved, if you're exposed to it long enough, it's going to affect you," he said.

For residents who can't make the trek to the Midwest, they are pulling their resources at home.

“It meant a lot to us after our tornado -- the outpouring of support we got,” said Monson resident, Kimberly Luscombe-Baker. “Now the Monson volunteer team has said ‘OK, here’s a chance to give back.’"

Since last week, Monson residents have been actively pooling their resources to assist those living in Harrisburg, Illinois -- one of the communities hit hardest by the tornadoes. The small town of 9,000 residents, a size similar to Monson, was devastated by a category EF-4 tornado last Wednesday. The tornado damaged approximately 300 homes and reportedly killed six people.

Though Monson fared better on June 1, the recent outbreak of 109 tornadoes across 10 states has brought a flood of traumatic memories back to residents, many of which feel compelled to help the victims in the Midwest.

'They seem to be having the same issues and have the same questions: 'Where do we go for this, how do we know who needs help,'" said Karen King, the founder of Monson's Street Angels. King also set up a Facebook group for Harrisburg residents to mirror the efforts of the Monson Facebook group. The group, Harrisburg Tornado Help has garnered more than 100 "likes" since it was created last Friday.

The Monson Facebook page was filled with discussions on how Monson could help in the recovery and Luscombe-Baker initiated an effort to purchase gift cards at local stores such as Krogers, Home Depot, CVS, Walmart and more so that victims can buy supplies they need to recover. She is also acting as a collection point for care packages to send the Harrisburg Fire Department. Luscombe-Baker said she got the idea from a friend who used to live in "tornado alley," but wasn’t sure how to get started at first.

“I could have said to one friend ‘wouldn’t this be a great idea’ and nothing would’ve happened. But I posted the idea in the Monson Facebook group and presto!” she said.

Monson Tornado Watch 2011 is an active Facebook group with more than 2,000 members that has been instrumental in Monson’s recovery, from organizing volunteer efforts to acting as a pool of resources and information.

Drawing upon her networking experiences after last Spring's tornado, King, a realtor at REMAX Prestige, contacted realtor, Cheryl Winters in Harrisburg to answer some questions residents were having.

King said Winters was grateful for the advice and said, "This is what humanity is about; paying it forward."

Anna Meiler can be reached at ameiler16@gmail.com.
Follow her on Twitter @anna_meiler

Photo Courtesy of: Paula Nelson/AME Photography: pnelson@globe.com

View more pictures of the tornado destruction.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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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.

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