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Members of the Altoona Area High School softball team traveled to Mayfield, Ky., Last week to help with cleanup efforts after tornadoes hit the area in December. Here, Abby Smearman (center) cuts a metal roof with the help of head coach Jessica Stiffler and a local Mayfield volunteer. Courtesy photo

The devastation in Mayfield, Ky., Caused by deadly tornadoes last month was an eye-opening and humbling experience, said a group of high school students in the Altoona area, who just returned from a trip. volunteering to help the community where storms have devastated huge swathes of the city.

“It was so shocking, like I couldn’t even put it into words”, Abby Smearman said. “It was nothing I had ever seen before.”

“The devastation was like an apocalypse”, his father, said Matthew Smearman. “It was very, very heartbreaking to see the utter devastation in some areas.”

The Smearmans were part of the group of AAHS softball team and family members who started the New Year with a 700 mile trip to Mayfield to do all they could to help those in need.

Eight players, four parents and two coaches made the nearly 11-hour trip to volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse in southwest Kentucky, where around 76 people were killed and several communities were devastated.

Volunteers from the Altoona Area High School Girls’ Softball Team worked long hours to help the community of Mayfield, Ky. After devastating tornadoes hit in December. Courtesy photo

Jessica Stiffler, head coach of AAHS softball, had previously volunteered with Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization, when Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey coast and when wildfires struck. threatened Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

The push to volunteer at Mayfield began when Stiffler asked assistant coach Nicole Rickabaugh if she wanted to accompany him to help clean up the debris left by the tornado outbreak. Rickabaugh then suggested that Stiffler ask if any of the players on the team would be interested in volunteering.

“I just saw it as a really good team bonding experience”, said Stiffness. “I try to show girls how to appreciate their community. These experiences really help you grow as a person.

Those who decided to take the trip did it because they really wanted to, as it was not affiliated with a school and therefore did not offer hours of community service, Stiffler said.

For Madison Zimmerer, a senior at AAHS, Stiffler’s passion for volunteering was what made him want to go.

Members of the Altoona Area High School Girls’ Softball Team, (L to R) Madison Zimmerer, Bridget Delozier, Kayla Delozier and Olivia Confer, help with cleanup efforts in Mayfield, Ky. Courtesy Photo

“It humiliated me, it made me appreciate the things that I have more”, Zimmerer told of his experience at Mayfield.

The group took away community donations of water, non-perishable food, paper products, work gloves, hand warmers and eye protection. Gas money to get them to their location was also donated, which Stiffler described as a huge blessing that made the trip “easy and stress free.”

The families of Smearman and Zimmerer have decided to take it a step further by preparing gift bags and care packages for the people of Mayfield. Some of the items included were shampoo, socks, lotion and lip balm.

“It was just another way to give back”, Matthew Smearman says.

According to Stiffler, the group was able to fill a large trailer with whatever was put together.

As large-scale natural disasters are not common in central Pennsylvania, Stiffler and parents made sure to try to prepare the girls, who ranged from sophomores to seniors, for what they might. see.

“I was really scared at first” said Stiffness. “I was afraid of what they would feel and how it would affect them.”

Once in Mayfield, the group took the time to shop around and see exactly what they were up against.

The scenes that met them were shocking.

The group described seeing streets with houses on one side and only rubble on the other, three wagons impaling a 40-foot metal grain silo and large pieces of tin crumpled like balls of paper.

According to Maddy’s mother Sommer Zimmerer, once the initial shock wore off, the girls were ready to get to work.

“These girls worked hard, really, they didn’t hesitate” Sommer said. “They jumped in.”

The group stayed at a church in Mayfield, using cots and air mattresses they brought from home.

The days started at 6.30am with breakfast and devotional time before meeting up with other groups of volunteers at 8am. the.

According to Sommer, people saw them in their neon orange Samaritan purse shirts and approached them, crying and thanking them for their help.

“The people of Mayfield, when they looked at us and thanked us, they were in tears because their whole county and town is rubble.” said Stiffness. “It used to be a nice little town, comparable to Hollidaysburg, but now the people of that area don’t even know which road they are on.”

According to Matthew Smearman, the city fire chief estimated that in Mayfield alone there were still around 220,000 three-axle dump trucks loaded with debris to be cleared.

To help with this huge undertaking, the group would accomplish between two and four jobs each day. The girls’ main responsibilities were to help transport and pile up debris on the side of the road for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pick up and take away. Those who were 18 were allowed to use power tools and cut down fallen trees and large pieces of metal.

According to Stiffler, it was a lot of manual labor, usually in temperatures below freezing.

“We kept moving forward, we were lifting big logs and raking and trying to keep moving” said Stiffness.

“Towards the end of the day, they got to the point where they could lose a diaper or two.”

The work day ended around 4:30 p.m. and the group returned to church where they spent the evening playing games and telling stories before the lights went out at 10:30 p.m.

“It was a great bonding experience not only with my father but also with my teammates and coaches”, Abby said. “We have become very close.”

For a while, members of the AASD softball team met and played with the Mayfield High School softball team in their gymnasium, which was untouched by the tornadoes.

“It was truly a moving experience” Sommer Zimmerer said. “It was almost like they had played together for a long time.”

Since the Samaritan’s purse does not operate on Sundays, the group decided to attend a church service where two young girls were baptized.

The girls’ father was killed in the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory during the tornado outbreak, and Stiffler said the girls wanted to be baptized so they could join their father when it was their time.

“For a 9 year old girl to recognize this, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place”, said Stiffness.

Despite the disheartening circumstances of the trip, many in the group agreed it was one of the best and most rewarding experiences of their lives.

“I believe that everyone who is there to help will be a changed person because of this”, Matthew Smearman says.

” I would come back without hesitating “ Maddy Zimmerer said.

Mirror staff editor Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.

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