It’s been almost seven months since an outbreak of tornadoes caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, displacing hundreds of people across the Miami Valley.
Since then, an army of government agencies, volunteers and advocates have been working to help restore hard-hit communities and assist survivors.
One December event organized by two partnering churches was designed to provide a boost to storm-affected families ahead of the holidays.
The gathering space inside Gateway Cathedral Church in Trotwood was packed as families, mostly women and children, gathered to share a meal. A chicken dinner served with sides of cooked corn, green beans, and dinner rolls was followed up with desserts, including chocolate cake and cookies.
The room buzzed with conversation and excitement, a feeling of Christmas floated in the air.
Onstage, a singer strummed a guitar and sang Oh Come All Ye Faithful.
Jason Bunger, pastor of Hope Church in Dayton, which collaborated with Gateway to host the event. He said each year Hope leaders assess the biggest needs facing many Dayton residents, and plan for how the congregation could help meet those needs.
"We've had the unrest of the beginning of the year. We had we had the Dayton shootings and we had the Memorial Day tornadoes. And we recognize that many people, because they were hit by the tornadoes, are probably not going to be able to celebrate Christmas," he said. "And so [we asked] what can we do?”
The churches identified 40 or so families affected by the May tornadoes and invited them to share the meal. They also told the families there would be donated toys for their children.
But there was something they didn’t reveal.
Upon arrival each family received a green ticket. After dinner, each ticketholder was also given an envelope and told to leave them unopened until they were all distributed.
Once that was done, they were allowed to open the envelopes where, inside each one was a $600 Christmas gift card.
Mixed emotions swept the room. While many waved their envelopes high in the air and cheered, others held them close and wept.
The churches had raised $27,000 for the event, the dinner, the gift cards and presents for the children.
After the dinner, attendee Teresa Smith described how she’s still struggling with difficult memories from the night of the storm.
The Harrison Township resident was asleep on her couch when the tornado hit her neighborhood.
“I thought I heard sirens and I turned the TV on and it said, ‘if you live in the Harrison Township area, get into your safe place, like now.’ I didn't have two minutes and it was there. I ran to the basement and held on for my life,” she said.
When it was over Smith’s house was still standing, but it was missing part of the roof and a few walls. Her car was also damaged.
Smith says she's repaired her roof and says was thrilled to be invited to the Gateway-Hope event.
“I'm speechless! I feel so blessed and grateful.”
Constance Ihenacho said she was overwhelmed by the event. Her home in Trotwood was damaged by the May storms. She came to the dinner with her young children.
“I was told by my daughter's school to come here,” she said. “I was so happy. I didn't expect it to be this way and I appreciate that. This is a time of sharing, a time of giving, a time of love and I felt the love this night.”
Gateway Cathedral Pastor Norman Scearce huddled with his wife and children in the bathtub of their Trotwood home during the tornado. With that memory in mind, he said the community event held special significance for him.
“Tonight was absolutely amazing to see the responses of the individuals that were blessed. It was worth more than anything we could have ever imagined,” he said. “We wanted to be certain that these families who, some of whom are still displaced from the tornado or are still rebuilding, we wanted to make sure that they could get or at least have some sort of peace of mind about buying gifts, providing for their families something that they didn't have to worry about.”
Montgomery County officials estimate the storm recovery will take upwards of at least two years. And hundreds of storm-affected families continue to rebuild their homes and their lives.
But church organizers say they hope community events like the dinner would help make this Christmas holiday just a little bit better for a few tornado survivors in need.