It’s been a deadly tornado season this year, with destruction, injuries and deaths throughout states south of Wisconsin, but for one 2011 Rhinelander High School graduate, those events have resulted in a profound change of thinking.
Colton Funk hadn’t given much thought to how he was going to spend his spring break, but tornados and their destruction were definitely not in his plans. But that was all about to change. One day, when this 20-year-old UW-Stevens Point freshman was minding his own business in the lobby of Peace Lutheran Campus Center, youth pastor Andy Weden posed a life changing query, “So, what are you doing for spring break?”
Colton, who is majoring in athletic training, shrugged, and then pastor Weden posed another question, “How would you like to go on a mission trip to help victims of the Joplin tornado?”
“I didn’t think about it very long,” said Colton. “Right there I agreed to go.”
Plans were put into motion, and 16 other students signed on. But they would need money to pay for basic expenses like transportation, so Colton turned to his Rhinelander church family at St. Mark’s Lutheran to help raise his portion. For three weeks parishioners contributed to his “kitty,” and it wasn’t long before he was packing to go to Joplin.
Then news came that the clean up in Joplin was progressing, but there was massive damage, destruction and death in a little town called Henryville, Indiana. Four tornados, ranging in ferocity from F1 to F3 slammed into the town on March 2. It was a very deadly series of storms that killed 13 people in Indiana, 21 in Kentucky and others in Ohio and Alabama.
“So we changed our plans and decided to head to Indiana to help those victims,” said Colton.
They left March 16, and traveled in a big van and a car. Colton did not know any of the other students when he boarded the van for the trip. “It’s funny how you really get to know people on that long of a drive,” he said. “By the time we got there we felt like we had known each other all our lives. I definitely made some lifelong friends.”
The first night the group stayed at the University of Illinois in Normal and then the next morning went to Henryville to find out where they would be needed. Colton couldn’t believe his eyes.
“You see this on television, but in real life it’s unbelievable” he said. “I can’t even put into words how destroyed this town was. Our first sight of the destruction when we drove into town was just piles of debris along the roads. Everything was smashed beyond recognition. Just piles of rubble.”
The group was told before they left they would be helping victims rebuild. Colton thought he could really contribute.
“I took the building trades class at Rhinelander High School and learned a lot there,” he said. “I’m also helping a friend build a cabin in the UP, so I thought I could help pound nails.”
But at that time of the clean-up process, what was needed were strong backs to help tear things apart so they could be hauled away. “Everything was so destroyed,” said Colton. “There was very little to save.”
The students found a home base at a summer camp in Ogilville, and commuted about an hour every morning to Henryville. Some of their duties included tearing apart a trailer home for an older gentleman so he could move in a new one. “Everyone was so kind to us,” said Colton. “They were so appreciative of every little thing.”
The group worked a hard 8 to 5 tearing apart homes, picking up debris and assisting Henryville residents anyway they could. It was in the evenings, when they returned to their camp after a hard day of labor, that the students had a chance to reflect on the impact of how one storm could affect so many people.
“I felt like I was on this roller coaster of emotions,” said Colton. “One minute I was having fun with my new friends, but then suddenly you start thinking about what you had seen that day, and you could hardly take it.”
The group returned to Wisconsin on March 24. Colton gave a presentation on his trip to the congregation at St. Mark’s Lutheran just recently, but life for this young man will never be the same.
“Doing mission work is something I am definitely going to continue to do,” he said. “Going on this trip was a real life changing experience but a good one. I found out I got a lot of satisfaction from helping people in their time of need. I would really like to do more of that.”
Associate Editor Mary Ann Doyle is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.