Kentucky ministry helps salvage mementos in Arkansas

Group sponsored by Sisters of Charity of Nazareth makes first trip to Natural State

There are a lot of places in Arkansas that give residents the cachet of mountain living without sacrificing too many modern conveniences. Brush Mountain is not one of those places.

Just a couple of stumps inside the west Pulaski county line, you know immediately that anyone you encounter along Deer Drive or Turkey Trail is the real deal; people so enamored with the breathtaking views and monastic silence they’ll daily drive, sans guardrails, a half-mile of glorified logging trails that twist over steep ravines like a king snake just to get their morning paper.

And when disaster strikes — be it forest fire, ice storm or as was the case April 27, a lethal twister — everyone here knows the first axiom of this wild and beautiful place: Help who and where you can, but survive on your own. Until today.

“Can you believe we found them up here?” said Sister Luke Boiarski, SCN. “The first day we were here someone at the volunteer center said ‘Well, there’s probably some people way up at the top who need help.’ So we came!”

The “we” who have again ascended here after working Mayflower the day before are members of the Sisters of Charity Disaster Relief Team supported by Sister Luke’s order, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Just in its third year, the ministry has traveled to six disaster sites in a roughly 500-mile radius from the motherhouse in Nazareth, Ky. The group spent May 5 to 8 working affected areas, with its own trailer to haul gear, a minivan full of Kentuckians and the unsinkable Sister Luke at the wheel of this, their maiden voyage to Arkansas.

“I have never been in a diocese where I have been so welcomed with accommodations,” said Sister Luke. “Mr. (Patrick) Gallaher with Catholic Charities was absolutely marvelous. It’s the first time that a Catholic Charities has responded the way the Diocese of Little Rock has responded.”

The disaster relief work grew out of the order’s SCN Lay Mission Volunteer program, of which Sister Luke is director. 

In 2011, summer floods made transportation to the site of a project impossible, so Sister Luke diverted her cadre of volunteers to Missouri, still reeling from the cluster of tornados that had raked the area three weeks earlier.

“I believe, truly with all my heart, that was an inspiration from God,” she said. “I told my director, we weren’t going to Montana, instead we were going to go to Joplin, Mo. She said, ‘Where are you going to stay?’ I said I don’t know; she said, ‘What are you going to eat?’, I said, I don’t know.

“She said, ‘Luke, what are y’all going to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but you know what? It’s OK.’” She said. “As Americans, we have to have everything lined up so perfect, that we don’t let in the Spirit.”

The Spirit that led them to Joplin — where a local Baptist church gave them shelter and the Red Cross kept them fed — now came to rest in the frayed and splintered trees surrounding what used to be Linda Lanier and Sonny Alvarado’s home. The couple moved in 2007 from their native Louisiana.

“When we moved here, one of our neighbors said we’re insulated from tornados because of the ridge,” said Linda through a broad grin. “Well … they were wrong.”

Sister Luke said the group takes its orders onsite from property owners so they have to be ready to handle just about anything from chainsaws to tweezers.

On May 6, the focus here was getting debris into piles; on May 8 they’re hanging tarps and sifting for personal items. It’s a common request among disaster victims; some items are for insurance purposes, others simply knit the first purl of normalcy back into life.

“We never pass judgment on what we find because you never know what’s important and what isn’t,” Sister Luke said. “If where I live was hit by a tornado and a volunteer found a wooden spoon with a crack in it, they’d never think that was important. The fact is, that spoon belonged to my mother and as long as I got it back, that and my grandmother’s pizza pan, nothing else I have matters.”

The workers moved through the garage onto what looks like a back deck, that is, until you see the family room fireplace set into the remaining tattered chunk of wall shifted three feet off the slab. Sister Luke and her crew pick gingerly through a beachhead of powdered drywall, shredded insulation and crackling glass looking for any personal items. Nothing escapes their gaze — bits of pottery, a stray personal paper, a remnant of a 40-year stamp collection. Each find is a mini-celebration, a baby step back.

Lanier circulates, offering workers cold drinks and giving newcomers the tour like a hostess throwing the first dinner party of a new home. The only time she seems pensive is when she peers down the cliff at an impossibly clean square of concrete.

“See that slab? Down there is where that man and those two children were killed,” she said. “We were lucky.”

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