Volunteers plant trees in tornado-ravaged Gifford
GIFFORD — It wasn't just the mild temperatures and blue skies that made Saturday a sunny day in Gifford, it also was the 150 or so volunteers who planted 162 sturdy trees around the tornado-ravaged town in northeastern Champaign County.
Swarms of helpers from the Champaign County Farm Bureau, local Rotary clubs, Lions clubs, high school groups and others started work around 7:30 a.m. and were finished by 5 p.m.
"There was chaos. We had some people who got trees and didn't want them and some trees that didn't go where they're suppose to, but mostly it's been perfect," said Bill Malone, a member of the Champaign Rotary and a horticulturalist who helped organize Saturday's event.
"The weather's been perfect. The crews have been perfect. And people are really, really grateful. You put all that together and we've had a pretty awesome day."
Gifford residents said they were thankful for all the trees — donated with money from Rotary Club and Farm Bureau members — and the volunteers.
"I think it makes a difference. I think it makes it actually feel like it is coming together and that we're actually getting our lives back. It's regrowth, starting over," said Shawna Gernentz, who has lived in Gifford for four years with her husband, Casey, and their two young children, and survived the Nov. 17 tornado that sliced through the center of the village of 900.
"It's nice seeing people come and do stuff for our community," said Casey Gernentz. "We didn't know too many of the people who were here today, we knew a few. But it's nice that there are good people out there who will come and help."
Jeanette During was measuring an empty lot near the center of town Saturday, where she and her husband plan to move a 1930s-era farmhouse to replace an even older home that was leveled by the twister.
"When I went to one of the meetings after the tornado, they said they were going to set money aside for trees," she said. "I hadn't thought of that. It was very overwhelming to me because I think that's very important. I think it's great that they'll be here in the springtime."
Mark Frandle, who has lived in Gifford since 2008, acknowledged it would take years for the trees to make a marked difference in Gifford, "but it's still going to be better than just having a barren street. They'll look good, but it will take a awhile for them to throw some shade."
Jim McGuire, a Champaign Rotarian and a member of the Champaign County Board, put in more than three hours planting trees Saturday.
"It's really kind of heartbreaking to see it and to talk to the families. I haven't been up here before this," he said. "Hopefully seeing things move forward will help the people here."
That's the plan, said Malone.
"A lady came by who lives on North Main Street. There's no house there, just an empty lot. She just came over to talk to us; she couldn't talk; she was just crying," Malone said. "That made the day worthwhile. I told her that we will take care of her. We will be back next year. We'll raise the money somehow. She was just so grateful that we were here. The emotion just came out. That made my day.
"I just feel like we've raised the spirits of the town. That's what we wanted to do. The trees will take awhile to become gorgeous, but they'll still make a difference right away."
In some parts of Gifford, it's too soon to plant trees.
"In the very center, I call it ground zero, we couldn't plant. There are just empty lots, so those people are going to have to wait until next year," he said. "Most of them don't even ask. They know better."
"If you don't have the house up, the contractor's not going to want them in the way," added Frandle.
The trees are a good start, said Shawna Gernentz.
What does she want next?
"Just to get our neighbors back would be nice. Seeing houses coming back would be great," she said.