BY CHRIS TAYLOR | Senior Director | Ball State Sports Link
Ball State men’s basketball redshirt sophomore and member of Ball State Sports Link, Tayler Persons, should stand up himself.
Although he doesn’t want the attention or the pat on the back, this time Persons should get a few of those and more. Well done, my friend.
As news spread Wednesday afternoon of the EF3 tornado which hit his hometown of Kokomo, Persons did what comes naturally in times of adversity – he led.
He rallied his community, and his fellow Sports Link and Ball State friends, with a tweet.
#765StandUp, referencing the area code of his hometown (and Muncie).
Only this time, it was different.
Three years earlier a tornado ripped though his community, and the then-senior at Kokomo H.S. rallied his high school to help. He was recognized for his efforts with the United Way of Howard County New-Initiative Volunteer of the Year award.
The National Weather Service says Wednesday’s EF3 twister traveled nearly five miles on the city’s south side, was about 300 yards wide and lasted 10 minutes. Peak winds were estimated as high as 165mph.
By 1 p.m. Thursday, standing in the bed of a white Ram 1500 truck with a megaphone at his high school parking lot, Persons led — again.
Organizers think between 250-300 people showed up to help. Watching Tayler with my Sports Link crew, none of us knew what we were about to witness.
We all had our workman’s gloves ready, just like we would for any Sports Link production strike. But, we didn’t know.
After all, driving into Kokomo we didn’t see much destruction. We didn’t pass the Starbucks that was leveled. We didn’t pass any of the images we saw on the news. Couldn’t be that bad, right?
We didn’t know. Not one bit that a couple hours later we would be carrying people’s entire lives in boxes through the rubble.
After the first couple hours volunteering with hundreds of others cleaning up block-after-block of Kokomo’s Garden Square, we still didn’t know.
It wasn’t until we moved on to one of the hardest hit parts of Kokomo. Park Place Apartments.
Walking between two of the apartment complexes, we turned into a courtyard. Ground zero. Apartment-sized air conditioning units littered the sidewalks. An eery silence except for the shattered glass and limbs we stepped on.
“These people need help,” Persons said.
He led. We followed.
“Hey, Ball State,” said the lady. She was an alum.
Her two twin nieces lived in a first-floor apartment that looked like a bomb had detonated.
Box-by-box we loaded up their lives and carried them to a flatbed trailer where an elderly man, perhaps their grandpa, organized the chaos.
“You remember Letterman? I remember him back when he was a weatherman. Thanks for your help. You coming to help unload this, too?”
He joked. We smiled. We made another trip to the apartment.
As one of the young ladies watched my crew carry out her couch, she looked through the shell of a window at her bedroom and cried as the ceiling caved in.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Emergency Management officials confirmed Thursday the complex was deemed a disaster zone, with residents only allowed access to retrieve necessary items.
We moved on.
Across the street a father asked if we would be able to help his daughter. She lived on the second floor of Complex F with her newborn baby.
Her neighbor’s truck in the parking lot with the words “happy” from a birthday banner stringing from the passenger door. Taped underneath was a sheet of paper stuck to the door “…to be alive.”
Piece-by-piece we carried their life down the stairs, feeling like intruders into a life we never should have been in.
“You here with Ball State? What’s Sports Link? You know Tayler Persons?”
Persons and his friends were moving one of his best friends out of his apartment down the block. The path of the tornado obvious right outside his door. He told Persons he saw a minivan with people inside being spun around in the parking lot. Not too far away, two-by-fours pierced the apartment’s exterior like darts.
Helicopters circled overhead. News media prepared for their live stand ups. Volunteers pulled wagons of water and Gatorade.
“We didn’t really say much,” Persons told the Muncie Star Press later. “People needed help, so we went to them and let them know ‘whatever we could do,’ because people’s houses were so devastated.
“We were cautious (about talking too much) because people’s houses had just been destroyed, but whatever they needed, we were there for.”
Thursday was humbling, sad, inspirational and blessed.
In the constant news cycle of how bad life is and how hatred fills our lives, we saw none of that. There was kindness and compassion between every race, every gender, every sexual orientation, every age.
And in the face of disaster, we saw hope.