OBERLIN, Ohio — Members of Firelands FFA are spending spring break in Ashland, Kansas, helping farmers in need.
Member Garrett Lewis had been following the devastation in the news and learned about other groups going out West on Facebook.
He, too, wanted to help, so about three weeks ago, he recruited his sister and six friends to go. They started a GoFundMe account and requested donations from local businesses to support their trip and donate to the victims.
So far, they have raised nearly $7,000.
They connected with the owners of Duma Meats in Portage County, Ohio, who had helped to organize one of the original relief convoys from Ohio, to get contact information of those organizing volunteers in Kansas.
“We are driving down there and are going to spend the week helping to reconstruct fences, just as laborers,” said Christopher Fath, a sophomore at Firelands High School.
The group of eight members — Sean Miller, Clayton Spiegelberg, Christopher Fath, Tyran Ostrander, Evan Born, Garrett Lewis, Clay Palmer and Madison Lewis — and an adult, Dani Lewis, left April 15 and plan to return April 21.
Read more about Ohioans brining relief to wildfire victims in Kansas
“I have cattle of my own,” Fath said. “I can understand how hard it must be to have everything gone.”
Fath has a herd of seven cattle that he shows at the Lorain County Fair.
“I’ve never been that far west, I am excited to see what it is like and see exactly what the fires did,” Fath said.
The group rolled into Wichita, Kansas, and saw some areas that had been burned, but quickly learned those were from controlled fires, Lewis said. As they moved farther west, they came to Ashland, Kansas, and saw the real damage.
“Telephone poles were burned in half, fence posts were charred. The destruction was amazing,” Lewis said.
The group is staying at a Christian camp. The camp hosted 200 volunteers last week and are planning for 100 this week.
When they arrived, the Ohio teens were quickly were put to work. The farmers split them into two groups, those who were comfortable driving a tractor and those who weren’t. In the rural area they are working in, 20 homes and 30 structures were lost, said Lewis.
“There are a lot of proud people out here, who didn’t want to ask for help,” said Lewis. One of the farmers they are helping just now asked for help, six weeks after the fires devastated his land.
One element of good that has come out of the tragedy is that the community has come together, Fath said. Farmers shared that they never talked to their neighbors as much as they do now.
One farmer they are helping has 400 head of cattle, waiting to come back to the farm. Some of those cattle survived and fires and some cattle he has purchased since the fire.
“We are using teamwork out here, working together to tear down the burned fence,” Fath said. “That is something I’ve learned through FFA that is helping me now.”
(Reporter Katy Mumaw spoke with Garrett Lewis after they returned.)
Garrett Lewis, sophomore, reflects on the weeklong experience, sharing that the conditions of the land in Ashland, Kansas, were better than he thought they would be.
“I thought there would just be nothing left, but after the fires, they got 2-3 inches of rain, helping the grass to grow back and the tree leaves to start coming out,” said Lewis. “The houses haven’t started to be rebuilt because the owners are working on taking pictures, cleaning up and working with their insurance companies.”
The most memorable part was working with the farmers. “They didn’t have the attitude you’d expect, they were just joyful,” he said. “They probably figured being down didn’t help in making things better and moving forward.”
Lewis shared that unfortunately the Christian camp they were staying out is closing its doors to relief volunteers. They have to renovate camp before the summer camps begin, so he thinks they may have been the last group to benefit from the camp accommodations.
Lewis thinks the farmers impacted need money the most, so they can get what they need slowly get back on their feet.
“The stockpiles of hay people had donated was off-the-wall,” he said. “Acres and acres of bales.”
Lewis hopes to make another trip out over the summer with his mom, Dani, and sister, Madison, to check on the farmers they helped and see what else they need.
Day 1: At the end of the first day, they came back dirty and compared stories about how hard it was pulling out burned fences and posts. The youth also helped roll out hay bales to feed the farmer’s 400 cows.
Day 2: The day started foggy with dew on the ground. The volunteers were separated into two groups, both headed to different areas to remove more fence.
The Kansas sun was a bit unforgiving as most of the boys got a little sun burnt. Both groups saw rattlesnakes on their adventures.
In the evening the group discussed how it was the right decision to come and help for the week and all they have learned, such as different farming techniques and about water tables.
Day 3: The group has gotten to know volunteers from Iowa, New York and Missouri. One gentleman from Missouri came out alone with his four-wheeler, skid steer and post hole attachment. Another lady from New York flew into Witchita, rented a care and arrived at the camp they are staying at to help for a week. She owns cattle of her own.
The group heard a story from a local farmer about two brothers, who hadn’t talked to each other for 20 years and the day of the fire the smoke was so black one couldn’t tell which direction they were going. One of the brothers had a compass and helped both of them to get to safety, saving both of their lives. Now they realize how petty the last 20 years has been.
“I’m proud of these kids. I am blessed they let me come with them,” said Dani, who is keeping notes of their experiences. On Dani’s way back to the camp after dropping the FFA members off at the farms to work today, she saw a cow giving birth along a charred fence row, another sign of hope.
Day 4: The group continued to pull fence lines today. It was extremely hot in the afternoon so one of the farmers they were working with took part of the group on a tour of his farm and let them finish early.
The group did some sightseeing in the evening, walking around Dodge City and stopped at St Jacob’s Well and the Big Basin Prairie Preserve.
They also met a man from Wooster, Ohio, Joe Wenger, owner and operator of Eyster Harvesting. He had done custom harvesting for a farm in Kansas the past several years and decided to come back and help plant crops and mend fences.