There for the Long Haul

Submitted by bstephens on Tue, 09/27/2022

Much of Eastern Kentucky was already struggling with extreme poverty. Then massive flash floods swept their homes, their neighbors, their lives, away instantly. Now, they’re working to regain a sense of normalcy, dependent on the kindness of others and their own tenacity. 

From day one of the chaos until the last families are settled back into their homes, Christian Appalachian Project’s (CAP) Operation Sharing Program will support their recovery. 

Operation Sharing works in tandem with CAP’s Disaster Relief Program to provide immediate assistance to Appalachian areas hit by major catastrophes like floods, winter storms, and tornadoes. When disaster strikes, the programs work together to bring food, water, emergency supplies, and other essential items to people in need. 

“Our warehouses were two-thirds filled with essential items provided by our long-time partners like Feed the Children, Good360, and Feed the Hungry,” said Aaron Thoms, who manages the Operation Sharing Program warehouse in Paintsville. “We have systems in place to ensure we can secure essential items needed in times of disaster.”  

Staff have also built relationships with local schools, social service agencies, churches, fire and police departments, and other community organizations to help distribute supplies. Operation Sharing has received more than 80 tractor trailer loads (more than 2,000 pallets) specifically designated for disaster relief aid. 

“We distributed $10.5 million worth of disaster relief gift-in-kind donations to affected counties, and we couldn’t have done it without our partners and donors,” Thoms said. This fiscal year, which ended August 31, Operation Sharing broke their all-time records due to disaster relief donations. “This is the most donations we’ve ever received and distributed in a given year. By the end of our fiscal year, Operation Sharing had received gift-in-kind donations valued at $137.7 million.” 

Thoms operates in sync with Ben Ridner, who manages the program’s warehouse in Corbin. Together Operation Sharing’s two warehouses serve partners across Kentucky, as well as partners in all 13 Appalachian states, Missouri, and Arkansas. “We communicate daily between our warehouses and we’re good friends and colleagues. Aaron and I are almost like brothers, that’s part of what makes us work so well together to benefit people who need help,” Ridner said. 

The recent Eastern Kentucky floods geographically occurred between their warehouses. “New relationships and partnerships happened here seamlessly afterward because we’re so invested in the communities,” Thoms added.

One relationship developed from a need to transport supplies to areas where roads had washed out which prohibited vehicles from getting through to residents. Ridner and his staff had to think creatively to meet the needs of families who were cut off from disaster relief aid.

“Early on, the only way we could get critical resources into areas like Buckhorn was by horseback,” Ridner said. “We loaded a regular pickup and took it in to Buckhorn. Supplies from Operation Sharing were then loaded onto horses with packs to get people what they needed to survive.”

Thoms echoed the commitment of CAP to continue to assist families long after recovery has fallen out the news cycle. “With disasters in our region, we’re there for the long-haul,” Thoms said. “In Western Kentucky, even though the tornadoes happened in December, we were still working to help families six months later, including sending a load of appliances to areas impacted by tornadoes in June.”  

Ridner added, “We’re still dealing with disasters three to four years later. We do whatever we can to continue to send essential items years after a natural disaster.”
Operation Sharing has 18 full-time staff who work with donors, partner organizations, and volunteers. “I believe God put us here to help people especially in disasters,” Thoms said. “Our truck drivers tell me when they pull up, people are in tears, and they get this feeling like they’ve never felt in any job anywhere before trying to make this world better.” 

Story by Shannon Holbrook.

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