BROOKINGS – “It’s not about the work, it’s about the people.”
That’s how Keeth Willingham describes the missions carried out by Samaritan’s Purse. Willingham, who is the disaster relief program manager at the Brookings site for the nondenominational evangelical Christian organization, arrived along with equipment and supplies only days after a derecho rolled through Brookings and the surrounding area on May 12.
The organization and its volunteers are helping Brookings homeowners and other homeowners in a 45-minute radius of the city – including the communities of Madison, Arlington, Estelline, Lake Benton, Minnesota, and others – until at least June 4, according to Willingham.
“We’re ready to stay as long as it takes,” Willingham said, adding that he estimates between 100 and 150 families may request help.
It’s not just homeowners that can benefit from Samaritan’s Purse; farmers can as well.
“We’re (also) seeking ways to help the agricultural community along,” Willingham said.
He pointed out one situation where a farmer had several trees go down, and their trunks were too thick for the farmer’s equipment to cut through. Willingham said a crew went to the farmer’s property and, with their equipment, helped the farmer cut up the trunks into pieces that could be hauled away.
Willingham also noted that Samaritan’s Purse is canvassing the region for work, and that the 211 service is feeding the organization requests for help. He added that they’ll also stop by people’s homes that have obvious damage to see if any assistance is needed.
Key to success
Volunteers are critical to the success of Samaritan’s Purse missions. Right now, crews based out of Brookings are primarily comprised of volunteers who traveled to the city from other states, including New York, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Alabama. But, Willingham said, that will likely change as more volunteers from the area step up to lend a hand in the days ahead.
People interested in volunteering can call 605-633-1050. Taking part in an orientation session is also required; the sessions are Monday through Saturday at 7:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at Bethel Baptist Church, 714 17th Ave. S., in Brookings. The church is serving as the base for the local Samaritan’s Purse mission.
Willingham said that if a community has enough residents interested in volunteering, Samaritan’s Purse would organize them within that community, instead having the volunteers travel to Brookings.
“A lot of people want to help,” he said. “They just don’t know what to do. Samaritan’s Purse can help by bringing in the equipment and organization to mobilize those folks.”
More information on how to volunteer for the Brookings mission can be found online at spvolunteer.org.
According to Samaritan’s Purse, the types of work performed focus on:
• Removal of personal property and furniture.
• Chainsaw work.
• Temporary roof tarping.
• Water damage cleanup.
Willingham said getting help to families in need is a multi-step process:
• A request for help is made.
• An assessment team is sent to the site in question.
• A work team arrives afterward.
• Chaplains from a Billy Graham Rapid Response Team will also respond to provide spiritual encouragement and comfort to homeowners.
According to Samaritan’s Purse, requests are handled depending on need and volunteer availability.
Working the sites
One of the folks getting help from Samaritan’s Purse showered the volunteers at her place with praise.
“They’re doing a fabulous job,” Ardis Sween said. She’s a homeowner in rural Volga. “They’re finding things to do that I didn’t ask them to do, and they just took care of it.”
Among the volunteers helping Sween by cutting up fallen trees and moving branches were Becky Armstrong of Dallas, Texas, and Roland Johnson of Chicago.
“Almost every person you see wearing the Samaritan’s Purse T-shirt is a volunteer giving their time to the community and sharing God’s love with the folks they help,” Armstrong said. “It’s fantastic how many people come together and mobilize when there’s a need.”
Johnson, who has been with Samaritan’s Purse for four years, shared similar sentiments.
“I always like to go out to a disaster to give people a hand up,” he said, adding that Brookings is his 17th mission.
“I find that oftentimes in a disaster, there’s a paralysis that sets in where people struggle to get back on their feet,” Johnson said. “I go out with Samaritan’s Purse because they meet people’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs.”
Armstrong added further praise, saying, “The superstars are the volunteers; they’re like none other.”
Willingham’s mission in Brookings comes with a wide variety of duties, including overseeing volunteer orientation sessions and even running a chainsaw himself. It’s far from his first deployment, though.
“I’ve been part of responses to places such as Iowa, California, Connecticut – basically, coast to coast – for hurricanes, wildfires, floods and tornadoes,” the nearly 21-year veteran staff member and volunteer of Samaritan’s Purse said.
Before joining the nondenominational evangelical Christian organization, Willingham was a professor at North Greenville University in South Carolina, where he also operated a tree business on the side.
An outdoors enthusiast, Willingham said it was his tree business that served as a sort of therapeutic for him. Even as he spends up to six months of the year on the road for Samaritan’s Purse, where he works full time, he still finds time to spend among the trees, especially with his son, who is an arborist.
Still, at the end of the day, Samaritan’s Purse, its missions and its volunteers remain central to Willingham.
“Volunteers have varying skill sets, but all of them come with willing hearts,” he said.
Contact Mondell Keck at [email protected]