Though his family's home was spared from the EF-4 tornado that ravaged Washington, Ill., Nov. 17, Greg Butler knew he had to do something to help his community.
"There are over 1,700 homes that have been certified unlivable and 500 of them are completely lost," said the 21-year-old architecture student at Judson University in Elgin. "A lot of the work right now is sorting those rubble piles into waste that can go to the landfill."
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Butler urged officials at the Christian liberal arts university to pull together a volunteer relief team to help with the cleanup. Roughly 30 students and a few faculty members spent three days in Washington earlier this week doing just that.
"He was delightfully persistent," said Chris Lash, Judson's director of university ministry, who led the mission.
Group members split into three teams to help clear debris, sort donations and make themselves useful wherever help was needed.
Judson University paid for all expenses such as transportation, food and lodging.
"We planned this in a little under three weeks," Lash said. "It took on a life of its own. To my knowledge, we haven't done a relief response trip before."
Judson volunteers bunked at North Minister Presbyterian Church in neighboring Peoria, a mobilizing agency for relief efforts.
"Our group was the largest group they had come through," Lash said.
Butler, who is home for winter break, said it is eerie seeing snow blanket the piles of rubble that once were homes and neighborhoods in the central Illinois town of roughly 15,000 people.
"It's harder to see where the houses were," Butler said.
Butler, who has lived in Washington since he was 7, said the homes of many of his high school classmates were hit by the storm.
"My best friend's house was completely leveled," he said. "He was luckily home from college during the tornado. He ended up getting his mom into the basement just before the tornado hit."
Butler said media coverage of the tornado's aftermath died down after a week.
"I felt like people needed to come and see for themselves and help," he said. "There is just such a great need that I knew a group would be helpful."
Continued financial support and manpower to clean up debris is critical to getting the town back on its feet, he said.
"Debris removal is expensive and the more volunteers that we have the less the city will incur in expenses in moving and trucking away this debris," Butler said.