I recently watched a news story by WCHS, Eyewitness News Charleston, entitled “A Thousand Stories Never Told.” The story discussed the flood aftermath in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The relief workers were interviewed and they highlighted their altruism and empathy following this devastating flood. As a volunteer coming in from Richmond, Virginia, I felt that their story didn’t capture the entire story. My experience is about a homeowner (we will call her Violet) and her family. I was fortunate enough to meet these folks in the flood aftermath.
WCHS highlighted Violet sitting alone on a porch sparsely populated with bags, boxes, and cleaning supplies. The visual is sad, alone, and defeated. When I and two other volunteers arrived at Violet’s door in the afternoon on Saturday, July 2nd, we witnessed something very different. We saw a lifetime exposed and turned inside out. The yard was filled with furniture drying in the sun. Carpet was recently stripped from still soggy floors and littered the sidewalk. A couch lay overturned near the road, its floral swirls once daffodil yellow was now sullied by the murky waters of a once quiet creek. An organ sat there, forever muted by mold. Years of her life were strewn across the porch in boxes, totes, and bags. It was a scene created, in part, by the loving family so unfortunately absent from the WCHS news story. There were also volunteers in the news story expressing their sadness for this poor, lonely woman, extrapolating the woeful details of her life from a snapshot in time.
Our day with Violet painted a much different portrait of her life. We worked in her house alongside her caring daughter-in-law and her grandson. There was another man helping—a grizzled blue collar type whose lean frame was a vestige of life spent in laborious work—who later revealed himself as Violet’s son. They worked caringly for their grandmother, mother-in-law, or mother… exhausted from days spent sifting through decades of memories. Memories of 40 years working at The Greenbrier, of bowling tournaments won by a loving but deceased husband, and school pictures of grandchildren long since grown. They worked meticulously to preserve any of the keepsakes that had managed to escape the water. Even those that seemed meaningless to them, they instructed us not to throw away. “She might want that. We’ll sort it later.”
The sense of urgency with which they worked wasn’t that of an absentee family who had left a poor little lady alone on a porch to quaintly guard what remained of her life. They weren’t absent and Violet wasn’t alone. Her family was there, feverishly working in the heat and soggy stench of floodwaters likely laced with sewage. They pressed on through their own pain and exhaustion to save as many of her memories as they could. They epitomized the community spirit I found in Greenbrier County that weekend.
The news story didn’t represent Violet accurately. She was not abandoned or unloved. She was simply allowing herself one more tranquil summer evening on her porch… sorting through a few last keepsakes and waiting for her family to return…. all the while knowing that they would soon depart from her home and leave behind a waterlogged shell of a house now reduced to a mere echo of the home it once was.
In my two weekends in White Sulphur Springs, I never saw the people themselves like victims, or as people in distress or in need of saving. They did not call us off the street to help them, although many did send a friendly wave in our direction. More often than not they initially resisted help and said, “We’re okay here. I’m sure somebody else needs the help more than we do.”
The idea of volunteering often elicits notions of helping people who are in need or who are somehow incapable of fully helping themselves. That was never how we felt in White Sulphur Springs. Before we helped anyone, there was a sense that they had to invite us to help. They had to invite us into their homes—or what remained of them—and grant us access into this intimate moment in their lives.
By allowing me to share in their story of resilience and perseverance, I feel like the people of White Sulphur Springs gave me more than I could ever give them.
Featured photo taken at 50 East Restaurant in White Sulphur Springs. This is a wall to honor friends and neighbors who suffered in the flood. Go check it out!
– A volunteer from Richmond, Virginia