WASHINGTON, Ill. -- As Annette Lemke drove into tornado-ravaged Washington on Sunday, the Lake Zurich woman had just one thought.
"Oh my God, this is just terrible," she said.
Lemke, joined by her golden retriever Ladel, traveled to the community east of Peoria this weekend with fellow members of Addison-based Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dogs, a group that brings canine companions to help victims cope with natural disasters and tragedies.
What she and other volunteers saw when they got there was shocking.
Piles of wood, siding and debris stacked above eye level on every curb. The small things that make up a life -- a lone high-heeled shoe, a bowling ball, a child's pink toy car, books on maintaining a perfect garden -- scattered across what used to be front yards.
For the past week, suburban volunteers like Lemke have been driving down in stocked-up vans and cars, making the nearly 150-mile trek with friends or family, or alone. They pass through checkpoints to get into the neighborhood that one resident called "a war zone," with some houses ripped down to the foundation and others with a few walls still standing, close to collapse.
They drive past countless American flags hanging from anything that's left -- sometimes just a fireplace or a pile of rubble. They've seen the fading red spray paint reading "OK" where all residents of a home were found safe after an EF-4 tornado devastated parts of the community Nov. 16.
They smile at the house spray-painted with "We will return" on torn siding, and another that reads "We are safe, we are blessed." They crunch over a carpet of glass and sharp debris that still coats the muddy, almost frozen ground while bringing hot meals, water and tools to residents cleaning up from the storm.
The people who live here insist that Washington looks much better than just a week ago when the tornado wiped out a few neighborhoods.
But for those who had been reading about the tornado damage from a distance, seeing it up close was a different story.
"We had all seen photos, but seeing it in person was kind of shocking," said Ryan Lacerna, a 20-year-old from Des Plaines who traveled to Washington with some of his classmates at nearby Bradley University. "I just wanted to come and help them. It's a little scary that it hit so close by."
With the temperatures dropping significantly since last week's rare storm, homeowners and volunteers are trying to get as much done as they can before winter settles in. Some volunteers are busy passing out hand warmers, cooking hot food and making sure groups of volunteers aren't outside for too long.
The relief effort has been made up of people like Lacerna, driving in unannounced, just willing to help anywhere they can, as well as organized efforts from schools, churches and other groups bringing donations of food, water, clothing and supplies.
Students at Northwest Suburban High School District 214 are working with other high schools to put together hygiene kits for survivors. The Buffalo Grove police and fire departments collected donations for the Washington first responders. A group from Huntley and Lake in the Hills collected donations after talking about the tornado on Facebook and drove them to Washington.
The response has been overwhelming, with most places in Washington no longer accepting material donations, only asking for money until they can get more organized.
Other volunteers have tried to bring back smiles to a town that is adjusting to its new normal, which includes about 1,000 families displaced in a community of a little over 15,000 residents.
At least 15 dogs from Lutheran Church Charities visited Washington during the past week, stopping by schools where parents were dropping off children for free day care while they went to clean up the piles of debris that used to be their homes. Dogs arrived as early as the day after the tornado when residents were just beginning to dig out of the rubble and search for valuable belongings.
"The people love the dogs. They have smiles on their faces where there was sadness," said handler Brad Schroeder of Arlington Heights. "The dogs were trained that way, to give comfort."
The dogs have traveled to the scenes of disasters and tragedies all over the country, including Hurricane Katrina, the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
"It's incredible how people flock to them like magnets," Schroeder said as children and parents alike gathered around his golden retriever Susie, petting her ears and burying their faces in her fur before a church service Sunday morning.
"I'm just hoping to give them a little peace," handler Diane Roloff of St. Charles said. "To bring them a smile and a sense of normalcy."
Lutheran Church Charities will host a Thanksgiving dinner Thursday for more than 500 residents of Washington, said President Tim Hetzner.
For some, memories of past disasters inspired them to help.
"I grew up in Ohio in the 1970s and I can still remember the destruction of a storm like this. It's overwhelming," said Joe Knupp of Batavia. Knupp lived through the April 1974 Super Outbreak of 148 tornadoes over several states, including one in Xenia, Ohio, that killed 32 people.
"I knew we are close enough to Washington that we had to do something," Knupp said.
As a Cub Scout troop leader, Knupp collected cleaning supplies and coats to drive down to Washington. He has more to bring later and he's hoping to link up with a scout troop in Washington to provide toys for the children who lost everything.
"We have had so many people helping us, I couldn't ask for more," Washington resident Kim Reynolds said Sunday as a truck pulled up from Famous Dave's restaurant, offering a free warm lunch and water to her family and the volunteers helping them.
"It's been pretty tough, but with all of this help I know we'll get through."