By Julie Parise, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – When the deadly twister struck Moore, Okla., taking 24 lives and robbing nearly every family in its path of their homes, possessions and irreplaceable memories, the Internet lit up with wishes and prayers for all those affected by the monstrously destructive storm.
But the survivors need more than prayers.
Upon seeing the heartbreaking devastation play out on his television screen, Tim Occhipinti, a Hoboken councilman, started making calls. Eventually he reached a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma City.
The store’s manager connected Occhipinti with Sam Walker of Crossroads Church in Oklahoma. The church had begun to set up a makeshift relief center for parishioners and survivors in its 13-acre parking lot, and was in need of supplies.
With the connection made, the two got to work. Together, they set up a system which allows folks from anywhere in the country to directly contribute to the victims on the ground in Moore.
By visiting Walmart.com and setting the Oklahoma City location (Store #743) as the “local store,” those looking to donate can buy items for in-store pickup, designating Crossroads as the recipient (click here for details). This allows the church to personally pick up items and deliver them directly to those in need.
“I wanted to do something a little more impactful [sic], other than texting $10 to the Red Cross – which is good – but I wanted to have more of a direct impact to people on the ground,” Occhipinti said.
The councilman calls it “paying it forward.” After all, Hoboken survived superstorm Sandy with the help of generous people across the country.
“We saw this firsthand in Hoboken, when we had another community down outside of New Orleans organize a train of supplies to send north to us in Hoboken and Bayonne,” Occhipinti said. “So we knew that we could do something.”
The devastation is apparent in Walker’s voice. He lives north of Moore, and while his home only suffered through some hail, many of his parishioners survived much worse consequences.
He told the story of a girl named Alison, a student in one of the schools which collapsed during the storm. After the tornado hit, her father and brother ran to the school, found her buried underneath the rubble and were able to dig her out. Alison was alive. But her friend, who was right next to Alison, was not.
The story lends itself, Walker said, to overall impact of the tornado’s destruction.
“Some people are very fortunate and just [have] storybook type situations occurring,” he said. “Some others are not so fortunate. What we’re trying to do is make sure we’re ministering to anyone who has a need, regardless of what that need is.”
Several reports out of Moore say that victims are no longer in need of supplies, but rather money. While Walker said that monetary donations – or Wal-Mart gift cards – are “probably the most necessary thing that we could use,” he added that his team will not turn any donation away.
Cots are one of the items atop the list of needs. After the trying task of digging through the rubble of what was once a home, victims are going to need a place to rest.
“These are people that are going to be going into ground zero,” Walker said. “We are trying to accommodate them so they don’t have to sleep in sleeping bags on the floor. They are going to be working hard during the day. What we are trying to do is purchase ice, hot meals, things of that sort.”
And there is no gift too small.
“A 4-year-old girl named Lily walked in here with a Ziploc bag of pennies and nickels — and she touched the hearts of everybody who saw her walk in, because she said ‘I want to help.’ What she gave was eleven dollars and eight cents, but I don’t think she could have touched more people if she had brought in a million dollars,” Walker said.
As Occhipinti put it, purchasing supplies for pick-up at the local Wal-Mart is the least we can do to help a community experiencing the tragic consequences of severe weather – a feeling Hoboken knows all too well.
“It’s just amazing what anybody can do with a little bit of research and time, and the Internet and the phone,” he said. “I just ask that people continue to spread through social media how they can be directly involved in helping with this recovery effort that’s going to last quite a while.”
For more information on how to help the victims of the Oklahoma tornado, click here.