0616-Feature-Generous hearts_Blog

A year and a half after a deadly tornado in Washington, Illinois, destroyed homes, tore up roads and displaced families, the town has rallied to rebuild — and to give back.

This spring, residents raised more than $50,000 to fight heart disease.

Yet back on Nov. 17, 2013, just before lunchtime, a tornado with winds up to 190 mph roared through the central Illinois town of 15,000, killing one person.

Volunteer firefighter Josh Hofer arrived just minutes after the twister ripped through the town.

“It was like a war zone,” said Hofer. “Homes were totally flattened, debris was everywhere and no one knew what to do.”

The tornado demolished four businesses and nearly 600 homes, affecting more than 2,000 residents, said Jon Oliphant, the town’s planning and development director. Damages topped $100 million.

Jolie Alois and her family were in nearby Peoria that Sunday at her son Evan’s hockey game. They returned home to find their house still standing.

For weeks, the town was on autopilot, said Alois.

“Neighbors helping neighbors, taking in those who no longer had a place to live, washing laundry for victims as they were able to find pieces of clothing in the rubble, taking in displaced pets, picking up debris by hand, collecting and organizing donations of all kinds,” she said.

Evan and his sister Tara gave clothes, shoes and toys to friends, as people across the country donated to the American Red Cross and other foundations for disaster relief in Washington.

The town was still rebuilding in early 2015 when students at two elementary schools raised money for a cause beyond its city limits: heart disease.

Joe Eells teaches physical education at Central Primary School, which raised $36,000 this spring for the American Heart Association’s Jump Rope for Heart program. That’s triple the amount raised the year before the storm, said Eells, who leads the school’s fundraising effort. Nearby Lincoln Elementary raised $15,000.

Jump Rope for Heart is a national school-based program and fundraiser that teaches students about heart health. Funds raised help pay for research and educational programs to prevent and treat heart disease, the nation’s No. 1 killer.

Tara, who just finished first grade at Central Primary, raised more than $1,000. “I like helping people,” she said, “and I love how they feel better when they have a healthy heart.”

A YouTube video and a pie-in-the-face promise helped her reach the $1,000 goal. Tara and her classmates also won a bet with their P.E. teacher. Eells had to shave his head, and it was “awesome,” Tara said.

Alois said the tornado gave the kids a new perspective on giving back.

“They were in a position to be on the receiving end of generosity from people all over the world,” she said.

“No matter your age, you can’t experience that without wanting to return the favor any way you can.”

Photo courtesy of Ali Cusmano