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Jojo Macatiag {CQ} walks through an area of fallen trees partially cleared by volunteers in Harrison, Tenn., on Thursday, April 5, 2012. Doug Walter {CQ} and Macatiag, both Open House Volunteers, were preparing to wrap a clean-up effort following 2011's tornado when February's twister created yet more damage to clear.

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Apison man devotes life to helping others after tornado

It's amazing if you have faith. Sometimes you don't know what will happen. It's scary at the same time because you never know what will happen. If I can make someone else's lives a little better, I'll try.

In front of Arthur Bates' farmhouse in Apison is a sign that reads: "The house God built."

The 76-year-old's home — built by his grandfather and more than a century old — was ripped apart by a tornado on April 27, 2011, just minutes after he left the home to deliver meat to his preacher. He said he doesn't know what would have happened to him if it hadn't been for volunteers, who he believes God sent to help him after the storm.

"People came from all over the United States to work on it," he said. "I didn't have any money to pay them."

The volunteer who often comes to his mind is JoJo Macatiag.

Macatiag, a Philippines native and former volunteer firefighter who grew up in Apison, spent nearly a year helping organize volunteers to clear debris and rebuild homes for uninsured residents, many who were elderly and had no alternative livelihood to rebuild.

Many in Apison credit Macatiag, 31, with galvanizing the local community and national volunteers, giving locals hope and the chance to pick up the pieces of their lives and move forward.

When the tornado hit, Macatiag was in Chicago getting a passport ahead of his dream vacation — a hike through Canada and Alaska — when he got a call that his stepdad's house was destroyed and he was missing.

And even though Macatiag had a fractured relationship with the 78-year-old man, he turned his car around and drove the 620 miles home, altering the course of his life.

After working for two weeks to salvage what he could from his stepdad's house, a friend of Macatiag's hung a sign between two posts on his stepdad's cleared property that read "OPEN HOUSE" as a joke because there was no house on the property. But the nickname stuck.

Volunteers from across the country remember that sign and gathering at the spot to make plans. The crews Macatiag organized became known as the Open House Volunteers.

Macatiag organized crews every day, working sometimes 20 hours. He slept in his car or in a chair on the property, guarding the tools and supplies from looters. Macatiag, who knew what it was like to face homelessness, lived off the money he had saved for his Alaska trip. He didn't take his first day off until Thanksgiving week months later.

Despite exhaustion, Macatiag came back to finish the projects he started. Then on March 2, an EF3 twister destroyed 82 homes near Harrison. The late Bill Tittle, who was the Hamilton County emergency management agency chief at the time, called Macatiag and asked if he would help organize volunteer crews to help with the cleanup.

"He's a very energetic young man, very caring, and he has a lot of talents," said Martha Grossman, who co-owns a California nonprofit with her husband, Jim, and met Macatiag on a job in Apison.

While Macatiag planned to take a break from volunteering to fulfill his dream of hiking the more-than-2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the border of Mexico to Canada, he hurt his leg fighting a house fire when the floor collapsed. Once again, he had to postpone a trip.

But his injury opened the door for him to stay and help again.

In January 2013, an EF3 tornado hit Adairsville, Ga., about an hour from Apison. Then in March, he met up with the Grossmans in Moore, Okla., after an EF5 twister killed 25 people, injured hundreds and destroyed two elementary schools.

"I just try to live my faith out," said Macatiag, who is a devout Seventh-day Adventist. "I don't preach, that's not my calling. But if someone asks why I do it I say, 'Because of what God has done for me.'"

Macatiag finally got the chance to hike the PCT in 2014, and again in 2015. He spent about 2,500 miles on the trail. He didn't complete it, but during that time, he helped rescue multiple people who were dehydrated or had hypothermia on the trail. He also helped a stranded couple whose van broke down in the desert.

He's been back in Apison seven months and already has volunteered with disaster relief near Dallas after multiple deadly tornadoes ripped across the Southeast Christmas week.

Living on the trail, worrying only about food, water and shelter, he learned to simplify his life. While he doesn't know where he'll go next, he knows he will end up where he is supposed to be.

"It's amazing if you have faith. Sometimes you don't know what will happen. It's scary at the same time because you never know what will happen," he said. "If I can make someone else's lives a little better, I'll try."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at jsmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

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