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United Way Tornado Donations Rebuild Homes And Promote Physical, Mental Health

Kate Carlton Greer
Oklahoma Tornado Project
Ben and Kristen Jones stand on their empty lot that Rebuilding Together OKC is building using United Way tornado donations.

In the wake of last year’s devastating tornadoes, millions of dollars in donations went to The United Way of Central Oklahoma. The non-profit organization also agreed to administer Governor Mary Fallin’s Oklahoma Strong tornado relief campaign. Together, the funds raised a total of $20 million. 

One week after the tornado hit the city of Moore in May of 2013, country singer Blake Shelton showed up to host a benefit concert called Healing in the Heartland.

The concert raised over $6 million for The United Way’s May Tornadoes Relief Fund, and it garnered a lot of attention from storm survivors.

Not long after that, another storm flooded Ben and Kristen Jones’s home in Midwest City, and then an electrical fire finished it off a few weeks later.

Ben remembers seeing all of the benefit concerts, but he never really knew what happened to the money.

“I didn't have a clue, and I really didn't give it more than a passing thought because it's something outside of your purview,” Jones said. “You're not really expecting people to help you. We didn't think we really needed help at that time. So you say, ‘Ok. It goes where it goes.’”

Some tornado survivors were more persistent though, says Debby Hampton from The United Way of Central Oklahoma.

“I remember almost immediately after the "Healing in the Heartland" concert, I was working, and there was an individual in our lobby that had asked the receptionist how he could get his "Blake Shelton check" from that concert,” Hampton said.  

But individual tornado survivors don’t just get checks, she says. Instead, The United Way gives money to other non-profits in the area to manage cases and provide whatever help survivors need.

So far, the agency has spent just over half of the money from both its fund and the governor’s campaign. Hampton says now they’re focusing on long-term recovery.

“Most of the expenses and most of the disbursement of the dollars are going to go to rebuilding homes still, repairing homes and then physical health and mental health needs,” she said.

Donations go to groups like Rebuilding Together OKC, a home repair organization that usually assists low-income and elderly residents.

After last year's storms, Executive Director Jennifer Thurman decided to temporarily expand into disaster relief, and The United Way provided them funding to repair and rebuild homes without any cost to tornado survivors.

“We’ve done about 45 of those home repair projects, and we are just now getting started on some disaster rebuilds. We're building about six, and we think they'll approximately be $100,000 - $125,000 apiece,” Thurman said.

One of the houses Rebuilding Together is building is for Ben and Kristen Jones, the family whose home flooded and caught fire. Right now, their lot is just a pile of dirt, but construction is about to start, and they still can’t wrap their minds around it.

“I'm standing here in front of where the house used to be and I can't believe that somebody came and knocked it down, and somebody is going to help us rebuild. It's astonishing,” Kristen Jones said.

“One of the things that this does for me particularly is give me a perspective about where charity money goes,” her husband Ben said. “I mean, you never think about it. You think, ‘Oh, well the corporations are doing their thing,’ or, ‘I wonder where that money really goes.’ Wow. This is amazing,” he said.

The United Way of Central Oklahoma still has roughly $8 million in cash ready to spend, supporting non-profits as needed. CEO Debby Hampton says if, for some reason, the rest of the money isn’t allocated, the agency will ask donors how they’d like it redirected.

Kate Carlton Greer was a general assignment reporter for KGOU and Oklahoma Public Media Exchange.
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