‘A fairgrounds family’: Mayfield-Graves Co. Fairgrounds ceases operations as tornado donation center
Donations flooded into the Mayfield-Graves County Fairgrounds in the immediate aftermath of December’s tornadoes as it quickly became a rallying point for the community, serving as a place where people could pick up vitally needed supplies in the wake of a disaster that left dozens dead and hundreds without housing.
Now, nearly seven months later, it's ceasing operations as a donation center.
Sandra Delk found herself in the middle of it all. She’s worked at the fairgrounds for 24 years overseeing building rentals and event programming, but since the storms she’s been managing donations and other storm recovery initiatives on the grounds.
“When I woke up that Saturday morning, the first thing I always do is get my phone and start just surfing Facebook and whatever, and I saw Mayfield really got hit,” Delk said. “The first thing I thought of was the fairgrounds. Is there anything left?”
Delk remembers seeing trees snapped like toothpicks and debris in the road on her way to the fairgrounds that morning. When she got there, the buildings were still standing, but none of the utilities were working. She tried to get downtown afterward, but realized she couldn’t.
Then the phone started ringing.
“I started getting phone calls and people were saying, ‘Okay, we're bringing trucks in,where does it come?’ and I’m like, ‘It comes here,’” Delk said.
The donations were smaller and local at first, but within days, bigger donations from farther away started rolling in. Delk spent the night in her car at the fairgrounds during those first nights because there wasn’t any security to keep things safe.
In that time, the fairgrounds were open 24 hours a day to take in donations as they came and help people as they showed up.
Volunteers at the fairgrounds gave out coats and heaters in the cold days after the December tornado and now, seven months on, they’re giving out summer clothes and fans.
“We just changed with everything. We changed this building around so many times, it's not funny, to make it work, and we finally found a good system,” Delk said. “The people appreciated it, and please don’t get me wrong, they all did appreciate it and they have all been very sad that we're closing.”
The fairgrounds closed down their donations and supply operations June 30. They quit giving out food at the end of May and they never managed monetary donations, instead guiding people to other organizations better equipped to handle that. Now, they’re preparing for a back-to-school event in July.
Delk said closing the donation center also allows the fairgrounds to get back to some of the community events they’ve hosted in the past.
“Our volunteers here — I mean, I've been here a long time — but some of these have been here since the end of December and that's a long time for people to pretty much give up their life to be here,” Delk said.
Kristin King has served as the center’s volunteer coordinator and sits on the local parks board. At the start, King was taking care of people driving through the fairgrounds and finding translators for survivors facing a language barrier before taking on a bigger role.
“Kind of midway through the first week, I realized that the two people who were going to the command center were not from here and after Christmas break, they wouldn't be here anymore,” King said. “I said, ‘Well, somebody needs to go,’ and as the parks board representative for the fairgrounds and everything, I thought, ‘Well, I can do that.’”
King described her role as more administrative, assisting Delk where needed, unloading trucks, tracking volunteer hours and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
King’s husband did more than 22 years in the military, and when he said something about how much she was gone, she described it to him as her deployment.
“This is my deployment. I'm called to duty and I'm serving where I know God wants me to be right now and it's gonna take six or eight months or more,” King said.
For Delk, King and the other volunteers, those working and using the fairgrounds have become a family, which makes the closing a little sad.
After the fairgrounds finishes their back-to-school event, King plans to work case management with the area’s long-term recovery group.
“I think one thing you really see in a disaster is how much of the community draws together, all working together, all working on this one mission to help each other,” King said. “I'm hoping that that'll be a lasting thing and when things happen, or as we need to have events and things, that people will respond more readily.”
Colleen Alexander and Kim Moyers have been working with King and Delk at the fairgrounds for months. Both women have been in the Mayfield community for several years. Moyers said getting to this work has been a blessing, but it’s also been stressful.
“The emotions at the beginning was really hard because being one of the first people they saw coming into the fairground, I heard a lot of stories,” Moyers said. “Then I'm just grateful we were able to help and I'm so grateful for all the people from out of state who came and helped us help people, who sent all the supplies.”
Alexander and Delk both found their experiences at the fairgrounds brought them closer with fellow volunteers.
“We're family. We've got a whole new family up here, a fairgrounds family,” Delk said. “It's been tremendous to sit there and be able to do something that you've never been able to do before and I think we've all come out as better people because of this.”