"You have ten minutes," the fire chief told us. "Go through each room, grab what's most important, and get out."
It was a Saturday night, four years ago, and fire trucks lined our block. We were at a ballgame when neighbors called that our house was burning. Once we got home, we parked a block away because our street was lined with fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars. Then we pushed through the crowd to see what was left of our home.
The flames were gone. We could hear firemen inside crashing walls, windows, and ceilings to ensure the fire was extinguished. Friends came to the scene to help.
An hour or so later, as the heat inside our home decreased and air improved, we had ten minutes. Our friends helped us decide what to retrieve and what to pull from each room.
First to go - the kids' schoolbooks and violins. We raced with flashlights into rooms and grabbed. One friend told me, "Some day, you will want your quilts again," and rushed through every bedroom to gather them.
A fire chief went to one of my friends as a book brigade pulled our books from our home. "Tell your friends to get their good stuff - not books."
My friend answered, "You don't understand. This is a homeschool family. Their books are their good stuff."
That night, our friends figured out our clothes sizes, went home, and lent us clothes so we could go to church. The next morning, after church, over eighty people came to what was left of our home to offer support. One family took our children, one offered a temporary home, someone brought lunch, others brought money, and they helped us begin a plan to rebuild. Our friends carried us through the hardest parts of those months.
For three months, my children's school days were basics: reading, writing, and math. We started school at 6:30 A.M. so I could return to our home to supervise its repairs. The kids' most important lessons were how to work and rebuild.
In November, I saw the fruits of our suffering. An F3 tornado hit the city where I live. Twenty-three people died and over 800 families lost their homes. The lessons my friends and I learned enabled us to help others in need.
Some homeschool parents worked frontline rescue efforts: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, firefighters, police, and ambulance workers were face-to-face with heartache and tragedy. Other parents worked construction crews, electrical crews, and more. Churches combined efforts to provide relief to those who lost everything.
One family who helped us is now organizing the same help for another homeschool family, who lost their home in the tornado. The morning after the tornado, crews of dads, armed with chain saws, cleared trees off the family's cars and put a temporary roof on what had been the second floor of the family's home.
A mom who helped us four years ago offered to organize lunch one day for 500 tornado cleanup volunteers. Other families helped her make hundreds of sandwiches in less than an hour. My children packed sandwiches and cookies, working alongside another family's children who lost their home in a fire this year. Those children were still living in an apartment. The hardships our children survived help them understand how the tornado victims feel and how important it is to help.
Our YMCA works closely with our homeschool community to provide programming. Five of their employees lost homes in the tornado, and one employee's young son had to have shattered glass removed from his chest. When one co-op learned of this, they organized a pizza fundraiser to help those employees rebuild.
It's not just adults who help others. Our kids are there - making sandwiches, relaying phone messages, and more. Whatever we do - or don't do - we teach our children by example.
Four years ago, at the end of a long, hot summer, our home burned. I never realized the beauty that could come from ashes.
Our trials teach and refine us to serve others. They teach us what's important. People matter more than things.
When disasters happen, they remind us: what if you were told, "You have ten minutes to make your life right and fix relationships before you die"? Would you be ready?
Each day, every second, and any conversation with loved ones might be our last. Give them a hug, tell them they are important, and treasure those precious moments.
You may have ten minutes. Use them wisely.
How You Can Help
Rebuilding after a tornado takes months and help is still needed.
Vanderburgh County has created a relief fund for victims of the Evansville, IN, tornado of November 2005. Tax-deductible donations to the Vanderburgh County Knight Township Tornado Disaster Relief Fund can be made at any branch of Old National Bank. County officials said donations will be used exclusively for the victims of the disaster, including those now homeless.
Media partners The Evansville Courier & Press, The Gleaner, WEHT-News25 and Regent Communications have established a disaster relief fund at Fifth Third Bank. All of the money will go to the local American Red Cross to help tornado victims rebuild their lives. Donations may be taken to any Fifth Third Bank location or mailed to: News25 Tornado Relief, Fifth Third Bank, P.O. Box 778, Evansville, IN 47705-0778.
Eighteen people died in a trailer park that was decimated by the tornado. Dozens of people in trailers who had no rental insurance lost everything they had.
Next spring, our Habitat plans to build 25 Habitat homes. Several families designated to get those homes have stepped aside so the new homes can go to tornado victims who cannot afford to own homes any other way. The city is gearing up to add fundraising to build enough homes for both needs.
Those wishing to donate to help rebuild homes for low income people can donate to: Vanderburgh County (Evansville Habitat for Humanity) 510 John Street, Suite 6 Evansville, IN 47713-2705 Phone: 812-423-5623