Christian Aid Ministries repairs 24 houses hit by Easter tornado

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Christian Aid Ministries Disaster Response Service coordinator Joe Nicholes poses for a portrait at the ministries camp beside Shelter Church on East Brainerd Road on April 2, 2021.

After months of volunteering and repairing homes in Chattanooga, Christian Aid Ministries is ending its local tornado recovery efforts.

Joe Nicholes, a Virginian and disaster response coordinator for Christian Aid Ministries, spent the last several months in Chattanooga with his wife and two daughters helping the community recover from last year's EF-3 tornado.

The Amish and Mennonite nonprofit group out of Ohio - which left town last week almost exactly a year after the storm - initially volunteered to help clean up in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 Easter tornado and returned in December to help rebuild.

(READ MORE: One year after Chattanooga's Easter 2020 tornadoes, rebuilding and recovery continues)

"We try to do this as a ministry and a way to witness for Christ," Nicholes explained. "Not shoving it down someone's throat but just, you know, being the hands and feet and going out and helping people in a time of need."

Over the past four months, the group camped in RVs outside of Shelter Church in East Brainerd and spent more than 11,000 volunteer hours in Chattanooga with 205 rotating volunteers from 13 states.

In that time, they completed 24 repair and reconstruction jobs.

"Some of those jobs might have been just coming in and putting a new roof on someone's house. Some of them were complete reconstruction of a house," Nicholes said. "And we had a lot of them that they would need a roof or something but then there would be some damage inside or we would replace windows."

According to Nicholes, the group spent nearly $68,000 on repairs and received donations from across the community, including $35,000 from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

Shelter Church hosted the volunteer group, with its 10 to 12 trailers and 30 or so people a week, at no charge. Pastor Sterling Jetton said the presence of the visitors was an encouragement and a blessing to his congregation. The visitors attended most Sunday services, and some members of the nondenominational Shelter Church attended Thursday night singing sessions with the Mennonites.

"Having been through four to five tornadoes here since 1997, sometimes the local community forgets after two to three weeks, and they go back to whatever they were doing. But this group, they came in and started clearing trees and they had a whole program."

He added, "They're not just fixing houses and barns, they're restoring hope. You won't find a kinder group of people - compassionate and kind and loving."

When Nicholes and the other volunteers left last week, Nicholes said, there was still plenty of repair work to be done, but he has confidence in the community.

"I would say there's still quite a bit of work that's left to be done in the area. But I would like to say that out of all the areas we've been in, we enjoyed the Chattanooga area the best," Nicholes said. "Really, the friendliness of the people, the closeness and the small-town atmosphere makes everyone really friendly and helpful.

"Sometimes people aren't as inviting, even to a volunteer organization, because some don't always do the best job. But everyone at the city and county and in the community works really well together here," he added. "And since people really want to help repair the community, they are and they will."

Staff writer Ricky Young contributed to this report.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@times freepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.