John and Lisa Villwok, front row, standing second and third from right, and their son Ryker, standing behind the youth with crutches, are seen with friends and other volunteers who came to help in the aftermath of an April 26 tornado near Blair. COURTESY PHOTO

Encountering Jesus

Faith in God and support from parish and community sustain Blair tornado victims

John and Lisa Villwok are accustomed to helping others. Members of  St. Francis Borgia Parish in Blair, the couple gathers donations for Joseph’s Coat thrift store and food pantry in Blair.

But they never dreamed that they would one day need assistance themselves.

That changed late Friday afternoon, April 26, when an EF-3 tornado up to a half-mile wide severely damaged or destroyed numerous homes south of Blair. Those homes included their own and those of several other parishioners, all of whom were grateful to God for their survival and to fellow parishioners and other volunteers for their generous assistance following the storm.

The Villwoks, both Omaha police officers, were at home and their 14-year-old son, Ryker, was sheltering at school when the tornado hit. The couple emerged uninjured from their basement saferoom amid drywall dust, insulation and burst pipes to view a scene of destruction.

The Villwok’s home near Blair was severely damaged. COURTESY PHOTO

“I was immediately thankful that God looked after us the way he did,” John said. And, despite the challenges ahead, the couple’s faith in God has not wavered, he said.

Their faith in the goodness of others was also affirmed as the Villwoks began salvage and cleanup efforts.

“Within an hour we had 30 people helping us,” he said. “The kindness we’ve experienced has been a blessing.”

With the upper level and half of the lower level of their home destroyed, the couple could salvage only three pieces of furniture and some of their clothing. But friends from the parish came together to provide furnishings for the house they are now renting in Blair while other volunteers laundered the clothing.

As a police officer, John said, his whole life has involved helping people, so it’s difficult to ask for and accept help from others, but he is grateful to all who have stepped up to help.

“We lost almost everything, but those are material things,” he said. “But through God we were saved and we’re here to talk about it. This, I think, will make us stronger as a family.”

John Villwok is with his wife, Lisa, as he holds a police officer trading card that features him and was found in a nearby creek bed. COURTESY PHOTO

Attending Sunday morning Mass two days later, the Villwoks also found comfort and support among their fellow parishioners, including others affected by the storm. “Our comfort was in the Church,” John said.

“The meaning of our Catholic faith is service, helping those in need. That’s who we are as Catholics.”


Nearby neighbors and friends Brad and Maggie Youngers shared a similar story.

Brad is co-owner and operator of Midwest Drill Seeding, and Maggie is a nutritionist for the Cargill company in Blair.

With severe weather closing in, the Youngers picked up their three children – ages 5, 3 and 4 months – from daycare early and began to prepare, assembling a tote bag of essential items and trying to remain calm for their children’s sake as they headed to their basement storm shelter.

Brad and Maggie Youngers, with their children: Ty, age 5; Kashly, 3; and Payton as a 1-month-old at his Baptism earlier this year. With them at St. Francis Borgia Church in Blair is Deacon Jeff Zurek. COURTESY PHOTO

Together they repeatedly prayed the Our Father and Hail Mary with the two older children, and within four minutes it was over, Maggie said.

Brad ventured out first to assess the damage, she said. “I’ve never seen him as shaken as he was then.”

Along with the damage to their home, Brad also lost a shed and some of his company’s equipment. But fortunately, all were uninjured.

Brad’s business partner, who lives in Bennington but was unaffected, immediately called to see how they fared. Brad called his father in Kansas and his sister, who quickly booked a hotel room for them in Blair.

It wasn’t long before people started showing up to help, Brad said.

Brad’s father and five of six siblings from Kansas and Missouri also quickly headed north to help.

Father Damien Wee, pastor of Trinity Catholic Parishes (St. Francis Borgia in Blair, St. John the Baptist in Fort Calhoun and St. Patrick in Tekamah) arrived the next morning to comfort and pray with parishioners such as the Youngers.

“It was very reassuring,” Brad said. “And with about 30 people around, I can’t imagine that didn’t have an impact on them. It was a comfort.”

Father Wee also brought bottled water and snack bars to distribute to the tornado victims and those lending assistance.

The Youngers are happy they have their faith to lean on amid their challenges.

“I know Jesus loves us,” Maggie said, “and my faith has actually gotten stronger.”

It’s also humbled us since we don’t like asking for help,” she said. “This is softening our hearts. I know there are good people out there and the kindness that we’ve received, it’s just incredible.”

“I know there’s a reason this happened,” Maggie said. “I just don’t know what it is yet.”

To their 5-year-old son Ty’s young mind, understanding God’s will in such circumstances can also seem confusing.

Ty Youngers, age 5, views his family’s damaged house following the tornado. COURTESY PHOTO

“Ty asked if this is what happens when God gets mad,” added Brad, saying that he deferred that question to Deacon Jeff Zurek, who was visiting and praying with tornado victims that evening.

Interviewed later, Father Wee said he has always counseled people that, although some may feel abandoned by God in times of tragedy and trial, God is there in the midst of their suffering.

“We believe that God has not caused this to happen, but that He allows it and that He will be there for us through it all,” he said. “He is always able to bring good out of it, so we should turn to Him with our whole heart and give Him our doubts. All we have to do is look at a cross to understand how God can bring good out of tragedy.”

“I encourage people to know and trust that the Lord is with them and to cling to Him,” Father Wee said. “He’ll give them the strength to make it through this situation.”


For Dorothy Schmidt, her family’s safety and that of their horses is a sign that God was watching out for them.

With half of their home’s upper level destroyed and a portion of the basement collapsed, she and her husband, Rick, are grateful to God for their safety during the tornado and the help of family, friends and parishioners.

The home of Rick and Dorothy Schmidt after the tornado. COURTESY PHOTO

Dorothy, an optician at Vision Care Clinic in Blair, was sheltering at work during the tornado. Rick, who works for Elemental Scientific in Omaha, came home early because of the threat of bad weather and as the storm approached, huddled with adult son Caleb in their basement storm shelter.

“Rick called me after the tornado hit and told me to prepare myself,” she said, telling her: “I think the whole house is gone.”

Dorothy said that Rick and Caleb were initially trapped in the storm shelter by a refrigerator that blocked the door. They received help and emerged with only scratches. Two horses in their stable also had only scratches, and the third was uninjured.

In the storm’s aftermath, the Schmidts have been touched by the generosity of parishioners, friends and strangers lending a hand to help with salvage and cleanup efforts.

“Oh my gosh, people I’ve never even met have been coming out to help,” she said.

Still in shock, Dorothy said the support and help from parishioners and others have been indispensable.

She is also grateful that things weren’t worse.

“It’s obvious that a lot of people were spared because Somebody is watching out for us,” she said.

Rick and Dorothy Schmidt are pictured in front of their damaged barn. COURTESY PHOTO

The Schmidts are temporarily staying with a niece. They have found a house to rent north of Blair, which they will move into soon. Their horses have been placed with friends. They plan to rebuild their home with some modifications.

“It’s (recovery) going to be a long journey, but things are coming together surprisingly well,” she said. “We’re trying not to worry, and I definitely believe in (the saying) ‘let go and let God.’”



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