On a recent May morning, Evansvillian Kathryn Martin was in a Walmart outside of Huntsville, Ala., when she received a call from a volunteer on C.J.’s Bus, a customized vehicle designed to bring relief to children in disaster-stricken areas. The bus had been charging through the South days after tornadoes killed more than 300. But the volunteer told Martin the bus now was stalled on the side of the highway with a busted radiator. Within minutes, Martin approached a police officer at a nearby gas station and hitched a ride to a repair shop. A new radiator didn’t fit. The repaired radiator was reinstalled at 2 a.m. the next morning, but it was still a dud. The repairman contacted a towing company and C.J.’s Bus was hauled to Tuscaloosa, Ala. It arrived at 8 a.m. The children waiting there cheered.
Martin’s passion to reach those in disaster-stricken areas comes from an incident six years ago when more than 20 people were killed by a tornado in the Tri-State, including her two-year-old son C.J. He served as the inspiration for her nonprofit organization launched in 2006.
The organization’s objective: “We go to play with the kids,” Martin says. Activities such as coloring and playing with Play-Doh serve as a diversion for the children and allow parents to “take care of paperwork and figure out where they’re going to live,” says Martin.
It’s no small feat to move a customized school bus and team of volunteers into a disaster-stricken area, often surrounded by debris and protected by the National Guard. When deadly weather strikes, Martin’s efforts begin by determining “where it’s going to be worse,” she says. One C.J.’s Bus board member works for the National Weather Service; another is a spokesperson for a weather-radio company. They decide the destination. One factor to consider: “We have to make sure here at home is okay first,” Martin says. “That’s where the money is raised.”
That was the case with the storm system that moved through Joplin, Mo., on May 22. It was the deadliest single tornado in the state’s history, killing more than 120, before moving into the Tri-State the following afternoon. C.J.’s Bus volunteers waited to make sure the devastation didn’t hit closer to home before deploying.
Then, they work with local emergency management agencies and churches to establish the location for the bus. Generally, they set up near the shelters or command centers to make the bus easily accessible.
They pack the bus with seven to 15 volunteers who play with the children. In one day in Tuscaloosa, 142 children visited the bus. They gave out care packages of pillowcases filled with fleece blankets and toys.
There is no guarantee C.J.’s Bus will deploy. Sometimes, there is not a good location for the bus, and people will not be able to get to it. “If it seems like it’s going to be more difficult to accommodate us, then we won’t go,” says Martin. “We offer to go, but it’s up to the community to decide.”