CFMT Grantee: In Wilson County, church congregations critical in tornado relief efforts

UPDATED 03/01: The following story includes original reporting, as well as updated information provided by CFMT and Compassionate Hands’ coordinator of Renewal, Leslie Williams.

In 2012, a group of Christians set out to make sure nobody froze to death in Wilson County. God blessed that effort. Over the last five years, 34 churches from 16 traditions have contributed to a ministry that has provided 5,000 beds and 10,000 meals to over 400 friends. Along the way, God broke down walls and built surprising friendships. The lives of guests and volunteers have been transformed.

Compassionate Hands received a $47,000 grant to support Middle Tennessee tornado relief by providing housing, clothing, and other necessities to tornado victims referred through Recover Wilson.

Sometimes it helps to have a little faith.

Or lots and lots of faith.

On a night when far too many people had nowhere to stay and nowhere to eat, supper was served at Highland Heights Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tennessee.

The church hosted the special guests for dinner as well as overnight stay, displaced victims of deadly tornadoes that ripped through Wilson County and Middle Tennessee in the early morning hours of March 3.

The American Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at Highland Heights. Emergency shelters also were provided at Redeemed Church in Lebanon and Victory Baptist Church in Mt. Juliet.

The churches are part of Compassionate Hands, a Lebanon-based nonprofit that serves the homeless in Wilson County with more than 30 ministry partners.

John Grant, Compassionate Hands executive director and minister, called a meeting with numerous churches in the community soon after the tornadoes struck.

“We wanted to help people without duplicating effort, and realized we needed a strong communication process,” Angela Kubic, part of the Recover Lebanon 2020 tornado response effort and a member of Launchpoint Church, told the Lebanon Democrat newspaper on March 14.

“The good news is that there are many resources, lots of people and many others who are ready to help,” Lebanon First Baptist Church pastor and co-lead of Recover Lebanon, told the newspaper.

More compassionate hands would be busy in the coming days and weeks.

Bicycles were donated by members of the Cross Point Church congregation.

The Spain House provided a meal that included hamburger steak, green beans, and potato casserole from popular local restaurant Demos’, as well as snack bags and toiletries.

“We’re going to be here for the long term making sure you have the resources you need to rebuild your lives and rebuild our homes,” said Bob Black of The Community Foundation of Wilson County, an affiliate of CFMT.

Compassionate Hands
Volunteers at Spain House in Lebanon offer a meal of hamburger steak, green beans, and casserole from local restaurant Demos’ on April 3 as part of tornado relief efforts for the nonprofit Compassionate Hands

Update from April 9 via Compassionate Hands executive director, John Grant

“Since our grant was announced a couple of weeks ago, we have been busy!

  • Our board met to determine how this new ministry aligned with our previous work. In a word, this is a second wing of the ministry of caring for Wilson County neighbors in need.
  • We developed a job description for the Coordinator of Relief. We talked with five candidates, interviewed three, and we offered the role to a person who we expect will be a blessing to our entire county.
  • We opened a new bank account for tornado relief funds. It has checks and a debit card.
  • While we have been doing all of that infrastructure work, we have remained engaged in relief work.
  • The phone has been ringing as word gets out that we are able to assist. We have received about 10 calls over the last couple of weeks, and half of those were storm-related.
  • We have met in person with three victims and provided help with housing, gas, and groceries.
  • We have continued to meet with the Recover Wilson team, coordinating our efforts and learning about benefits offered by FEMA, insurance, and others.
  • We have met with local government leaders to learn how to use data gathered regarding storm damage. Once the Coordinator of Relief accepts the job, we will promote the availability of funds. Then the party will kick into full action!

My favorite volunteer story:
Mark Taylor, one of our board members works full-time in insurance, and his work has not slowed. He let me know that he was available to contact storm victims if we needed him. He has talked with two families, providing hotel and food. And he follows up with me nearly every day asking where he is needed. He has been a great encouragement!

My favorite helping story:
I reached out to a family in Mt. Juliet who is staying in a hotel. They’re doing fine — insurance is covering lodging plus food. I asked what they need, and the mom said towels. That seemed like a strange request, so she explained. “I am not sure that the hotel staff washes the towels well enough. There is no way to know who used a towel yesterday.” She had been keeping towels and washing them herself at a laundromat. We purchased two bath towels and washcloths, along with a hoodie towel for their son, who celebrated his fourth birthday last week. She was touched.

One thing I’m learning:
I am amazed at the significance of listening. All I have to do is ask, “What happened with you the night of the storm?” Then I’m quiet for the next 10-30 minutes. Usually there are tears and much gratitude. People need to process what happened, so gentle listening might be the best gift I can share.”

Update from April 23: Compassionate Hands adds storm relief team

Compassionate Hands has hired Keith Alexander and Leslie Williams to serve as a storm relief team to distribute relief funds to tornado victims.

Alexander will serve as Coordinator of Relief, meeting with storm victims to assess their needs and to secure resources for rebuilding. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2003, he led a team that helped evacuees relocate to Atlanta and surrounding communities. He has lived in Lebanon most of his life.

“The first thing we’re doing is finding storm victims,” Alexander said. “That has been difficult due to ‘stay-at-home’ orders from the governor. Many are confined to hotels or staying with relatives. They might not realize what resources are available.”

Alexander explained that for many victims, insurance will cover temporary housing and long-term rebuilding. Since Wilson County was included in the federal disaster declaration, FEMA offers funds for uninsured storm victims. If people have other storm-related costs, nonprofits like Compassionate Hands can help.

Local resources can be accessed at Storm victims can also reach Alexander at 615-855-7372 or at

Williams, who lives in Mt. Juliet with her husband and three children, will serve as Coordinator of Renewal. Her work will involve tracking progress for individual storm victims and coordinating response efforts among non-profits. She brings extensive experience in project management that includes website development, marketing and database management.

John Grant, Executive Director of Compassionate Hands, explained the significance of the storm team: “Our community is hurting from double disasters. Everyone is focused on the coronavirus because it is so frightening. During this same season, Wilson County experienced a tornado that damaged over 1,300 properties. Long-term recovery experts say it takes two years to rebuild after a tornado. Virus concerns will make that time even longer.”

Follow up with Leslie Williams, Coordinator of Renewal, Compassionate Hands

CFMT: From your organization’s perspective, what progress has been made since the March 2020 tornadoes, and what more still needs to be done for survivors?

CH: Reflecting on what has been accomplished in Wilson County since the tornado, we have a lot to celebrate. First and foremost, the network of volunteers from churches to individuals should be commended. With their support, much of the heavy debris was cleared away in those first few days.

COVID-19 temporarily put a halt to the recovery effort. But behind the scenes, Recover Wilson leaders including: John Grant, Regina Girten and David Freeman worked to became organized and started taking action.

One thing we did well was to reach as many survivors as possible. Understanding that many survivors don’t have immediate needs, we wanted people to be aware that there were resources available for the long term and made sure they knew who to contact.

The Recover Wilson team did a thorough job of tracking down as many survivors as possible. We canvassed neighbors, sent mailers, emails, used social media and word of mouth. Compassionate Hands and especially our case worker, Keith Alexander, hit the streets, and we all kept our eyes and ears open for anyone needing assistance.

We were able to help with short-term needs, in a myriad of ways, and direct survivors to additional resources if needed. The funds and flexibility we had as a smaller organization allowed us to act quickly and creatively to best serve those needing assistance.

As far as the long-term effort, Recover Wilson is managing that aspect and they are doing great work. There are teams and funding in place and many projects underway to help restore survivors who lost so much.  

As far as what is left to do, survivors are still displaced, and some are still battling their insurance companies and/or contractors and have yet to make any real progress. Affordable housing is extremely hard to find, and this needs to be addressed, which is easier said than done.

In addition, we came across people who did not want to accept help because they believed someone else needed it more. We would like survivors to understand that it is not their fault and that there are resources and people available to help no matter their situation.

Anyone who has yet to do so should call the Tornado Recovery Connection (TRC) hotline and leave a message to be connected with a case manager. TRC is working hard to connect survivors with resources. That number is 615-270-9255. There is a Spanish speaking caseworker as well. All information is kept in the strictest confidence.

Our community has been through so much, and that has taken a toll on mental health. We pray that people are seeking help in this area and not going through this alone. PTSD can take months to appear. TRC can also connect survivors to churches and organizations who offer emotional and mental health resources.   

Lastly, once things have slowed down, all parties aiding in the relief effort should take an opportunity to debrief. This was the first time our county was hit with a major disaster. It is important to understand how to be better prepared in the future, identify what we could have done better, and celebrate all the hard work and what did go well! Relief work can take an emotional toll on those helping survivors, and it will be important to process what occurred.

Overall, our community should be immensely proud for coming together during an extremely difficult time and for what we have accomplished.


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