Illinois Angels: Kindness puts Joplin tornado family back on its feet

News-DemocratJanuary 19, 2014 

It's been more than two years since a devastating tornado hit Joplin, Mo., but memories still can be emotional for Johnny and Kelly Cook and their four children.

Daughter April Pickett, 16, wiped away tears last week as her parents recalled the flattened homes and businesses, scattered debris, mangled cars and injured people covered with blood.

Sisters Ki-Lee Cook, 12, and Cadynce Cook, 9, and brother Shawn Cook, 8, sat quietly and listened with wide eyes.

"You could smell gas everywhere," said Kelly, 34, then a college student studying to become a pharmacy technician. "There were houses on fire. All over town, there were gas mains busted."

Four of the city's 158 deaths occurred at the hospital, which sustained major damage.

"Chaos doesn't even begin to describe it," said Johnny, 38, then a packaging machine operator for Jasper Products.

The storm wreaked havoc on the family's rented ranch home, destroying most of their belongings. A pine tree fell through the roof. High winds busted windows, and water flooded the crawl space.

Today, the Cooks live in Edwardsville, thanks to a handful of residents who helped them start over with housing, furniture and other necessities. Johnny and Kelly work multiple jobs, and the kids attend local schools.

"They appreciate everything they get," said Jenny Hays, 44, of Edwardsville, co-owner of Hays Construction and co-founder of Illinois Angels Disaster Relief. "They don't take anything for granted."

Illinois Angels is a non-profit organization that collects donations and hauls supplies to victims of natural disasters. It started with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and continued with Rita and Isaac.

The organization is sponsoring a car raffle next month. People can buy tickets for $40 (three for $100) for a chance to win a 2014 Dodge Dart or a 2014 Dodge Caravan from Cassens in Glen Carbon.

Proceeds will be used to buy a larger home for the Cooks so they can vacate a small home that's on loan from an anonymous businessman.

"This family is still in flux," Jenny said. "They're in limbo. This is not a permanent solution. They need to get settled."

The tornado hit Joplin late on a Sunday afternoon, May 22, 2011. Kelly and the kids were lying on her bed, watching "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian."

Johnny texted from work about an approaching storm, but the Cooks didn't have a basement. Kelly was deciding what to do when a tree flew by the window, roots and all.

"I'm screaming at the kids, 'Get in the closet! Get in the closet!'" Kelly said. "And I'm shoving them in there with pillows and blankets and trying to shut the door behind me."

The terrified family stayed put for about 15 minutes, which seemed like an eternity.

"My dog was panting, and we couldn't breath," said Cadynce, speaking of her boxer-lab mix, Shelby.

Kelly emerged from the closet to find her neighborhood looked like a war zone. Johnny sped home in his truck, running over stray boards, broken glass and twisted metal.

The Cooks stayed with relatives in Oklahoma a few days but returned to their home and essentially camped out to keep away looters.

That's about the time Jenny and her partner, Deborah Hays, made the first of five trips to Joplin, distributing supplies for pets and humans.

"(Relief missions are) addictive," Jenny said. "I would compare it to a soldier who can't come in from the field. It's hard going back to your life when people are still suffering. You feel so guilty."

Jenny and Deborah met the Cooks on their third trip in August of 2012.

The family was working at a benefit for tornado victims. Johnny's charitable group, Musicians for Miracles, provided entertainment.

"We just thought they were good citizens helping out," Jenny said. "We had no idea they were victims themselves. They weren't there to collect. They were there as survivors."

That meeting kicked off a partnership that evolved into a friendship. Kelly and Johnny served as liaisons between Illinois Angels and needy Joplin residents for more than a year.

"We're family now," Johnny said. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for these women, and there's nothing they haven't done for us."

The Cooks visited Edwardsville in October of 2012, but it wasn't until the following May that the Illinois Angels persuaded them to move.

Today, Johnny works full time for Metro Marble in Granite City and part-time for Hays Construction and Emerald Lawn Service. Kelly cleans houses and works part-time for Hays and Circle K.

The car raffle is designed to give the family enough of a boost that they can stop struggling and thrive, perhaps even sending the kids to college someday.

"This is a family that's going to invest themselves in our community," Jenny said. "These are the kind of people who roll up their sleeves and help. They're not here for a hand-out. They've not asked for any of this."

How you can help

Raffle: The Illinois Angels Disaster Relief car raffle will benefit the Cook family, of Edwardsville, formerly of Joplin, Mo.

How much: Tickets cost $40 (three for $100) for a chance to win a 2014 Dodge Dart or a 2014 Dodge Caravan from Cassens in Glen Carbon.

Car viewing: 10 a.m. to noon Saturdayat The Bank of Edwardsville on Illinois 159 in Glen Carbon and Jan. 26 at Annie's Frozen Custard on Buchanan Street in Edwardsville.

Drawing and party: 3 to 5 p.m. Feb. 16 at Edison's Entertainment Complex in Edwardsville with Footloose and Fancy Free Karaoke and D.J. Service (date could change if more tickets need to be sold)

Tickets: Available at all 18 branches of The Bank of Edwardsville; Jennifer Ladd's Allstate office, RLP Development and Vallo Floor Coverings in Edwardsville; Tom Chouinard's State Farm office and the Home Builders Association in Maryville; Jacobs Sunroom and Exteriors in Fairview Heights; and Benchmark Title Co. in Shiloh.

Information: Call 618-570-4582 or 618-550-4513 or email IllinoisAngelsDisasterRelief@yahoo.com.

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