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'We saw love, and we saw Jesus': Ashton family still rebuilding after April twister

ASHTON – On April 9, violent winds forced Kathy James and her family into the basement of their rural Ashton home. As they sheltered in place, a tempest birthed a tornado that left them with more than $100,000 in damages.

A century-old barn – one of the reasons they bought the house – was destroyed.

But instead of throwing out the wood, Kathy, 43, is repurposing the best of the red lumber to create furniture, such as tables and a bookshelf.

“It was important for me to bring some of that into the house,” she said. That’s the philosophy she wants to pass to her three children – out of the bad, good can come.


Five-year-old Evelyn still has nightmares about it.

“The other morning she screamed for us, and said she had a dream about the tornado,” Kathy said, “[but] it’s beautiful out; it’s not going to happen again.”

Oliver, 6, didn’t talk about what happened at first, but now seems OK, she said. “He sees that the world didn’t end; it was hard at first.”

Samantha, 4, also took refuge in the basement.

“It was terrifying to be down there with them,” Kathy said.

The James family wasn’t aware that the storm was approaching until the very last minute, because emergency sirens aren’t heard that far out into the country, Kathy said. It was her sister, Gretchen, who alerted them with a text message.

Before it reached the house on state Route 38 just north of town, the storm already had ripped through the Crest Foods complex at 1883 state Route 38 W, and obliterated a warehouse.

Outbuildings were scraped from foundations and the wind took trees with it at a nearby property on Gurler Road.

When the twister finally arrived, it kicked over an electrical pole and sideswiped the home, battering the house so hard that part of the chimney sat in the living room the next day. Shrapnel and insulation decorated the farmland.

Volunteer work crews came out for a week in August to help the James family expedite the rebuilding, made up of church members from around the area and Chicago.

They worked on the garage, the children’s outdoor play area and sorted wood, but more importantly, they provided the James family with a blanket of hope.

"I've been in a tornado before,” laborer Dorothy Sterling said. “It was the most traumatic experience of my life, [but] the one thing you need is compassion for the people that hurt; let them know it’s OK.”

Her journey from Ohio to the Lee County disaster site was arduous, said Sterling, who once was homeless and lived in shelters. She made her way to Libertyville, where she felt a strong spiritual calling to come help.

Sterling helped to lead the workers in song every day, including her favorite, "Joy, Joy, Joy." She was energetic and caring.

“We saw love, and we saw Jesus,” she said.

The James family still is in the process of rebuilding, but they consider themselves fortunate. Another church group donated a temporary shed to hold supplies and tools, and Kathy's grateful for the local response.

Other families weren't as lucky, she said, especially with the seemingly long paperwork process. Her insurance company has been a great help.

A second floor was added to the one-story home, and now includes an indoor play area. The room wrecked by the chimney was redone.

A new barn, which will house her horses, still must be built; in the meantime, the animals live outside.

Contractors told Kathy that they are confident it will get done by the end of the year.

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