Weather Updates

How do you give thanks after a tornado hits? Wholeheartedly, it turns out: Brown

Alan Philips girlfriend Stacy Robinsshown here picking through rubble their home after Washingttornado will be counting their blessings Thanksgiving. |

Alan Philips and girlfriend Stacy Robinson, shown here picking through the rubble of their home after the Washington tornado, will be counting their blessings on Thanksgiving. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

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Updated: December 30, 2013 12:06PM

On the day after the Washington tornado, I met Alan Philips and Stacy Robinson salvaging what they could find from what used to be their home at 1505 Fayette Avenue — the tornado having been nearly as thorough as a bomb.

Like hundreds of other Washington residents that day, the couple walked away with little more than their lives. Their main source of income, Philips’ business selling antique and vintage toy collectibles, was blown to smithereens with everything else.

On Wednesday, I found them at a Quality Inn in Peoria, where they have been staying with their three children and pet dog while waiting to find a place they can afford to rent.

But here’s the important part: As bleak as that scenario might sound to somebody else, Philips and Robinson will celebrate this Thanksgiving Day more thankful than they can remember.

“We have our family. We have our lives. We may be a little inconvenienced, but we’re going to be OK,” a cheerful Robinson told me by phone.

That’s not just lip service. That’s not just somebody saying what they think they’re supposed to say.

Those are heartfelt words being spoken over and over again this holiday week by families whose lives were turned upside down in seconds — and in the painful process became more aware of what’s important to them.

I have to say I can’t recall a Thanksgiving when it was more clear to me how much I have for which to be thankful, at least not since the birth of my sons 22 years ago.

I’m thankful that the frightful storm that claimed my sister’s home spared the lives of her and her family and so many others, while also steering clear of the rest of my family in the area.

And I’m thankful for the tremendous outpouring of support for the tornado victims from around the country, but especially from those of you here in the Chicago area, most of whom had never heard of my little hometown before the Nov. 17 disaster.

Until that day, I don’t think the people of Washington would have thought that anybody up here cared what happened to them one way or another, and it’s been gratifying for them to discover otherwise.

I know my old high school friend, Washington Mayor Gary Manier, has been moved by the many kindnesses.

On Wednesday, Manier was on hand for a Thanksgiving luncheon for tornado victims, first responders and volunteers sponsored by Chicago Blackhawks Charities. Blackhawks President and CEO John McDonough came down to announce a $200,000 donation to the Washington Tornado Relief Fund, the charity established by the town through the Morton Community Bank to aid rebuilding efforts.

A day earlier, Manier had been awestruck when the Chicago Bears presented a $200,000 check to the CBS Chicago Cares Telethon, which in one day raised more than $2.1 million for the American Red Cross for disaster relief for central Illinois tornado victims and typhoon victims in the Philippines.

WGN, the Chicago Tribune and McCormick Foundation are also on target to produce a seven-figure donation through their own tornado relief effort, with that money earmarked for nonprofit organizations working with tornado victims.

Even little WCIU has been airing public service announcements from morning host Aly Bockler to steer donors to the Red Cross and Salvation Army relief efforts.

Still to come, Illinois bands Styx and REO Speedwagon are hosting a Dec. 4 concert at U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington that’s being billed as Rock to the Rescue Extends a Hand to Those in Need.

And that’s not even listing all the regular folks who just pitched in and started collecting donated items. So much stuff was donated that Washington ran out of room to store it all and had to begin waving donors off, although I was pleased to see that Catholic Charities in Peoria opened a warehouse this week to handle the overflow.

I know that what many people would like most is to put their donations directly into the hands of those who need it, but that is difficult, which is why I’m happy to report Manier tells me these established charitable endeavors have made a huge impact.

Robinson told me the Red Cross has provided a debit card with enough money to help cover some of her family’s initial needs. They’ll get more when they find a place to stay and need to furnish it. She also said they’ve been told they will qualify for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Even more meaningful have been the random acts of kindness.

“People we don’t even know stop by with gift cards,” Robinson said. “It’s just been incredible.”

On Wednesday, a church group with which they had no affiliation was helping clear their lot of debris.

Don’t get the wrong idea. The tornado has left scars on more than the land, and the rebuilding process will be long and difficult.

But on this day, many of its victims will not hesitate to express their thankfulness.

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