A native of Gahanna, Ohio, Danny Barren is pursuing majors in Russian language, religion and Russian and Central Eurasian studies with a minor in political science. He recently used his heart and hands to learn from and support the people of tornado-ravaged Lee County, Alabama.
I have driven southbound many times in my life. I have family that live in Florida, so barreling down a highway noticing the weather slowly getting warmer and the trees progressively growing greener in the early days of March is something that is comfortably familiar to me. However, this particular drive south seemed stricken with a sense of unfamiliarity, something foreign and odd; I was in a van headed south, yet I did not know what to expect. I was surrounded with people that, for the most part, I had spent very little time with, and we were on our way to do God knows what in a town that I had never visited.
I had been told, prior to leaving, that we had a plan; we were supposed to be preparing for a future build project for the Fuller Center, but other than that, we were mostly in the dark with regard to the tasks that we would be asked to face. This sort of work seemed simple and easy on the body. The latter was particularly important to me; at the time, I was recovering from knee surgery, and I had just been allowed to walk on my own two legs by my doctor three days earlier. We had a plan. I was just (quite literally) getting back on my own two feet, and I was excited to be able to use my recently repaired tendon in work worth doing. Plans are pleasant, particularly when they seem to be going your way.
As we crossed the Alabama state line, my eyes drifted skyward; the sky above grew darker, the balmy southern weather that always welcomes the northerner disappeared and was replaced with an infuriated rain, and the heavens grew increasingly more violent. Storms are a curious disaster, and the most anomalous of all phenomena to fall from the clouds above is the tornado. Tornadoes seem to violate every principal of violence and destruction. They are not like hurricanes or earthquakes; their paths are random, yet accurate. While one home is ripped from its foundation, the other just across the street remains seemingly untouched. Tornadoes strike without warning, as if they plan on using the element of surprise. They are selective and all-powerful; they have the divine force necessary to completely destroy one structure and leave all others standing. As if resembling the finger of an anthropomorphic God, a tornado can touch, transform, and even end the life of one person, all while allowing those around to watch without suffering a scratch. It was this unfathomable power that whisked our plans away in a deadly whirlwind and placed us within the midst of a community that had suffered a tragedy beyond my imagination.
As we pulled into the gravel driveway of a cabin within a small forest, I began to think about why I was there. If asked, what would I say? Would I pathetically state that I was there for a requirement? I’m not the type to answer like that, and having just driven through a storm that produced an F4 tornado, I knew that answer was no longer the case. The reality of what the community of Lee County had just experienced radically changed my perspective on my purpose of being there; I slid out of the van after many hours of sitting with a desire to work, no matter the consequences, regardless of my physical limitations, and with no concern for my own personal interests. Great tragedies remind us that very little of what happens in this world concerns us as individuals. I was reminded that, despite whatever pain or discomfort that my body might feel, I was there to serve other people and not myself. I have to admit that I was a bit worried when I found out that disaster relief could very well be the focus of our trip; I just couldn’t see myself turning down any work, even if what I was asked to do was beyond my capabilities at the time. How could I look someone who had just experienced a terrible disaster in the eye and tell them that I could not do the work that they asked of me? I simply didn’t have that kind of stubborn resolve within me, so I carried my bags into the one room cabin that would house all 15 of us with the resolution to do whatever was asked of me until either pain or the setting sun stopped me. Disasters, while terrible, are a surreal part of our natural world, and they are capable of invoking a unique kind of resolve from people that can only be mustered when human life has been threatened and radically altered.
Despite the carnage that resided just minutes from us, the cabin that would be our home for a week was surrounded by tall pines and was propped up right next to a small pond that rippled with every small breeze. It was an odd place when one considers what had just happened not even 20 miles from us; the cabin was peaceful, warm, intact, and rested in a small, wooded area that functioned as a refuge from the noises of highways and suburbs. It was a nice change from the floor of a church rectory, which was where I had slept the night before. Even though it was only separated from the rest of the world and a community recreation center by a short, gravel road, it seemed secluded without actually being far from anything. Upon arriving in Lanett, Alabama, we were greeted by Kim and Robin, two representatives of the Fuller Center who would be in charge of our work for the week. Beyond kind and epitomizing hospitality, these two women welcomed us warmly and genuinely seemed excited that we were there to work.
Our first day of work was at the site that we were originally scheduled to visit. However, the recent storm changed the nature of our job, for the carnage had not left that house untouched. Rain and strong winds had caused the ceiling of the home to collapse. Insulation had to be replaced, new sheet rock had to be installed, and mountains of old insulation and soggy drywall had to be ripped down and shoveled into the dumpster outside. Restoration had turned into repair, and as we donned masks and goggles and entered the home, we were taken aback by damage and ruin that, from the outside, wasn’t discernible. As I ripped and cut the fluffy insulation that dangled from what used to be a ceiling, the cloud of respiratory irritants grew thicker and thicker.
It was on that day that a few of us got to talk with Kim. Both Kim and Robin worked for the Fuller Center in Lanett and also ran a reuse store in the town that was just a few steps away from the Alabama-Georgia border. Keeping track of time in that area was daunting; just a few steps in one direction would cause the clock on your iPhone to switch from one hour to another.
Kim struck me as a very motivated, energetic person who desired to do as much good for as many people as possible whenever the opportunity presented itself. Her energy and kindness was impressive and inspiring, but having a conversation with her uncovered more about her life that revealed her to be one of the strongest people that I had ever met.
Having watched her work alongside us and walk from place to place, I would have never guessed that she had lost both of her legs. Hearing her talk about how her struggles led her to a life of service and a more fervent, religious devotion spoke volumes about the resilience of human beings. Many people would have allowed such adversity to kill their motivation, slaughter their ambition, and cripple their desire to achieve more. Kim, however, displayed a different reaction to the obstacles presented to her. Both cheerful and pleasant to be around, Kim was successful at what she did but, more importantly, the career that she had chosen was not one that was self-serving; it was quite the opposite. Kim was a successful servant to her community not in spite of her obstacles, but because of them. She stood as a model of strength and resolve that a struggling community needed to have. To be frank, meeting Kim removed any inclination to allow my injury to limit the scope of my work. If she could do her job with no legs, then I could do what was asked of me with a busted one; the only thing that stands in the way of our ability to overcome our own limitations and shortcomings is our determination to keep moving and our capacity for pain, both of which require practice and experience to develop.
It was on that first day that I had also met Roderick. He was an older man that worked alongside Kim at the reuse store. He spends much of his time on the road driving from city to city in both Alabama and Georgia, picking up donations from businesses generous enough to offer their surplus to those that need it most. I first talked to Roderick when he asked for volunteers to pick up insulation for the home that we were repairing. A friend of mine and I volunteered to ride with him in his massive yellow truck and help him get the large, fluffy rolls from point A to point B. It was mostly a silent ride, and Roderick seemed like a quiet guy. Being an athlete, I asked about local high school sports, whether people there liked Auburn or Alabama, and the like. We eventually made it back to the damaged house, and I got to work alongside Roderick as I ripped nails out of the ceiling (and somehow managed to break a hammer doing so) and cleaned all of the loose insulation from the floors.
Just a few hours later, Roderick asked if I wanted to ride with him on a two-hour round trip to Finley City, Georgia, to pick up donations from a Walmart. That long drive was quite an experience for multiple reasons. We drove through and alongside the path of the tornado that had ravaged the county just days earlier. Seeing destruction of that magnitude was nothing short of life-changing. Gas stations had been ripped in half as if by some monstrous hand, steel cellphone towers had been twisted and torn to shreds like yarn, and forests lay shredded and demolished like uncooked spaghetti. It was breathtakingly horrifying to see, but at the same time it made me want to become more involved and to throw myself into whatever disaster relief efforts we could find.
Roderick and I also talked the entire drive there and back. While a first impression made me think of him as being quiet and reserved, he turned out to be jovial and great company. We conversed about college sports, hunting, times we’ve had, and even about how to properly eat a raccoon (I never knew that people did that, and I plan on trying it).
Upon arriving at the Walmart, we were greeted by a woman who knew Roderick by name and were led back into the guts of the store that housed the unshelved merchandise. It was there that we found an area marked off for donations for the reuse store. It was piled high with boxes of extra clothes, toys, coloring books, and whatever else the store felt that it didn’t really need. I had never heard of a large store such as Walmart or Home Depot donating such large amounts of resources in this fashion, and to top it all off there was another area marked off for tornado relief donations as well.
On the way there, Roderick told me about how he typically drives his massive yellow truck to Finley City, Columbus, Georgia, and other areas about two or three times a week to pick up donations from the same companies to bring back to the Lanett reuse store. These donations were consistent and were not small. This regular generosity within and between these communities was astounding. It was as if these cities and these small towns belonged to a family; when one brother stumbles and falls, the larger one reaches out his hand to pull that brother out of the mud and into the light; he does not ask why or think about how many times more he will have to lift his brother to his feet. He just does it out of a sense of duty and commitment; we are our brothers’ keepers, and the concept of family can exist on both an individual and communal level. The essence of family can replace “us versus them” with “we stand together,” radically transforming our tribal tendencies into a recognition of a common, human identity that unites us all. As we stopped for coffee on our drive back, I just couldn’t help but wonder why I had never seen anything like that before.
The day on which we were to assist with the tornado relief efforts started with an early morning. I remember being excited; I was provided with an opportunity to get my hands dirty doing work that was responding to a tragic event that had just recently occurred. This was not a giddy excitement, but a determined kind. I had seen the reality of the damage that had been done while riding with Roderick, and now I was able to actually do something about it. This was satisfying, fulfilling, and it was a task that overflowed with worthwhile purpose and provided me, at least during those moments, with a sense of genuine purpose and meaning. I was there, amidst a disaster, and I was actually doing something to help. This is a feeling that I wish every person has the opportunity to experience at least once in their lifetime. It reshapes your perspective in a way that no other experience can. It provides you with a chance to live outside of your own ambitions, ego, and interests and replace selfish aspirations with worthwhile service for the sake of others.
Life can become very dull and seemingly void of meaning when the sole focus of your actions is your own betterment. You get a job to make your own money, you study hard so that you can reap the rewards of academic achievement, and you train for the sake of your own athletic ability. We do not get bored with life because it is routine and monotonous; life becomes boring for us because, more often than not, we get bored with ourselves. When you throw other people into the mix of life, things get more interesting. You no longer work for one person; you work for many. You no longer care for just one person; the well-being of other people suddenly means something and has value. You are just one individual, a drop in a pot of over seven billion other drops, all different and yet similar in the most touching of ways. If you just stare at a single leaf on the forest floor, you are bound to become bored with it eventually, but if you lift your head to see the rest of the forest and all of the life that it has to offer, then I can guarantee you that life will suddenly become more interesting and worthwhile.
The weather had warmed a bit more, the sky was finally clear and peaceful, and the sound of chainsaws, wheel barrels, and logs being flung into a ravine filled the air with the noise of progress. We were in a heavily wooded part of Alabama, an area where houses were 200 yards from each other, but the helping hand of a neighbor was only a second from your front door. I remember looking down at the massive log at my feet. It looked big, it looked heavy, and my gaze shifted from my knee to the log and then back again. I asked myself, how bad is this going to hurt? I quickly decided, though, that it didn’t matter, and when I bent down to pick up what felt like a boulder after months of inactivity, I found that I experienced no pain at all. As I matter of fact, quite the contrary; I felt great. After months on crutches with my leg in an immobilizer, I could not think of a better way to spend my first few days on my own feet. My first steps, my first activity, my first instances of manual labor after a dull, inactive, depressing few months was done for the sake of another and not myself.
I wasn’t thinking about the strength that I had lost or the limitations that I had yet to overcome. Instead, I was too preoccupied with what I could do, with what I could lift and move, and the purpose behind the work that I was involved in. I was in the moment; not the past, not the future, not the “could be” or the “wish that it were,” but the clear and unfiltered present, the purest form of consciousness that is too often ignored and overlooked. We spend too much time thinking, preparing, reflecting, and regretting that we repeatedly refuse to stop and spend time in this moment and ask ourselves a very important question: what can I do to better this current place and time? More often than not, it is the answer to that question that yields the most profound and meaningful solutions to the crises that plague us.
Most of that day was spent cutting up fallen trees, moving logs out of yards, demolishing broken bricks, and raking up the debris that had been entangled in the destructive winds. This was, and still is, one of the most rewarding days of my life. I was not concerned with my own ambitions, I was not held captive by my own selfish desires, and I wasn’t imprisoned by the fear of the 'what ifs' that haunt our minds. I was serving, and in service to another there is no ambition or self-interest, only the mutually held goal of doing good in that moment. We successfully cleared the debris from the yards of two homes, and upon being told that we were returning to our cabin, I remember being ready to take on a third yard. Moving logs from one place to another was worthwhile and that work just seemed perfect; it was simple, meaningful, and I could do it.
Our last day of work found our group returning to the house that we had started working on. With a new ceiling, new insulation, and a cleaner interior, it was ready for painting. Painting houses is a very rewarding endeavor. It turns construction projects into homes, it adds warmth to cold drywall, and it injects life into the dead materials that comprise what will be a refuge and a safe haven. What was once a wreckage of hazard and inhospitable chaos was, slowly, succumbing to our work and transforming into the home of a blind man that desperately needed to leave the crime-ridden neighborhood that had been so cruel to him. The walls were painted white; all he could make out were shadows, but the expression on his face when he was led by hand through his new home convinced me that he was capable of seeing so much more. As he walked around the house, creating a mental map of his residence for better times that would soon come, he found each of our group members working in the rooms and introduced himself as he shook our hands.
Good things come from the decision to relinquish your own ego and selfish perspective for an extended period of time and labor for the good of others. This decision is best captured in the story of Linda Fuller, who founded the Fuller Center for Housing with her husband, and who we were privileged enough to meet on our trip back home. Having left a life of wealth and luxury for a mission to provide for those that need the most, she embodies an example of service that is both ideal and extreme in the best of ways. As she spoke to our group, she described how she once lived a life that only very few in our society will ever dream of achieving; fortune, opulence, every want and desire met with ease. This, as she explained, only caused her great discomfort, a sense of meaninglessness, and internal turmoil. The crisis that wealth had created within her life nearly tore apart her family and almost left what should have been a life of serenity and spoils in the shambles of depression and a search for purpose. Renouncing our selfish aims for the sake of others is a daunting task; our tendencies to resort to self-preservation and personal interest in every situation blinds us of our ability to help others. Linda Fuller described a time in her life when everyone told her that she and her husband were crazy for giving up what so many strive in vain to achieve. This insanity, however, created one of the most influential and impactful global organizations that exists today. If practiced on an individual level, what is seemingly deranged could transform our communities in ways that only those crazy enough to try could ever imagine.
Danny Barren ’20
Hometown: Gahanna, Ohio
Majors: Russian language, religion and Russian and Central Eurasian studies
Minor: political science