EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – When an eastbound train derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3, it brought concerns and fears about the long-term effects of the chemical spill on the community.
It also brought out the best in people.
For weeks following the derailment, it was impossible to pass through town without being offered cases of bottled water. Nine months later, distributions continue.
Companies, organizations and individuals stepped forward to share air purifiers, cleaning products, legal advice, paper products, clothing, furnace and water filters and more.
“It was unbelievable,” says Chaney Nezbeth, executive director/CEO of The Way Station, with locations in East Palestine, Columbiana and East Liverpool. “I can’t even begin to tell you the amount of calls I got from all over the country.”
When a day came that she could no longer answer the phone, she let everything go to voicemail.
“It took me an hour and a half to just listen to all the messages left for me,” Nezbeth says. “Two months [after the derailment], people from all over the country who just wanted to help.”
The Monday after the derailment she got her first call – someone asking if The Way Station could help to clothe those forced to leave town with nothing more than the clothes they wore.
Within four days, 3,000 items of clothing were gone; the racks at The Way Station were bare. A request for volunteers to restock attracted approximately 40 people and three-quarters of them were East Palestinians, living in hotels and wanting to help.
“That first week or two, donations were coming in as fast as we could manage them. But they were going out just as fast,” Nezbeth says, adding they gave away clothing, diapers, pet food, hygiene items, paper products, as well as donated food specific to staying in a hotel.
The Way Station also connected to other organizations, which lined up to help or had volunteers available, but did not know what people needed. She reached out to pastors and community leaders in 12 communities in three states, urging them to see if East Palestine evacuees were staying in their area. She wanted them to bring them a hot meal or provide activities for the children.
“It was really impactful to see the response from communities that were nowhere near the train derailment but had evacuees living in their town and they didn’t even know it,” Nezbeth says. “They picked up the phone, found out where these folks were and made an effort.”
The derailment was unlike when a hurricane or tornado destroys a town, Nezbeth says. In that case, volunteers from several states show up with a plan already in place to support people, clean up and begin to rebuild. Following the train derailment, no such plan existed, she says.
“People wanted to help, but did not know how to help, and somebody needed to be able to navigate that and be an ear for the community on what they needed to be able to get back to donors. That’s what The Way Station was for the community.”
The Annika [Sörenstam] Fore East Palestine Charity Golf Outing, held at The Lake Club in May, raised $400,000 toward the needs of the community and with her connections to the organizers, Nezbeth was able to suggest where the money should be allocated.
The Way Station, East Palestine Social Concern and the East Palestine Community Foundation were in place in town long before the derailment and that gave them credibility. Nezbeth’s mother is with Social Concerns and her aunt with the foundation.
“That foundation of trust was already there. That is how I explain the phenomenon of how we were thrust into the position that we were in and still are,” says Nezbeth, who continues to represent the community on some committees geared toward rebuilding the community.
A nice, closely-knit community is exactly what George Hays, director of the United Way of Northern Columbiana County, says he found when he began to help with the Road2Recovery Hometown Walk and 5K Race.
“I wish that more people could have that type of community in which to live and experience what East Palestine has. Because it is unique and it is special and they are determined that they are going to come out of this rail disaster stronger than they have ever been. And I have complete confidence that they will do that,” Hays says.
Organized by Matt Werner, chief operating officer of Compco and a resident of the East Palestine area, the Road2Recovery race sought to replace the money that youth sports and activities lost when the derailment happened and also bring people into town. The president of Compco, Rick Fryda, had challenged the employees to make a difference in the community and the race became the answer.
Werner says they set out to raise $100,000 and bring 500 people to town but exceeded their expectations; They raised $170,000 and had 670 participants for the June 10 event.
“When [former Pittsburgh Steeler great Jerome] Bettis came in, he made time for every kid who came up to him and every adult,” Werner says.
The money was distributed within days to residents. It also funded a variety of youth sports organizations and school programs. Werner wanted to make sure the gifts were transparent.
He is proud that some money went to the robotics program, which is dear to the manufacturers affiliated with Compco. Hays says that program
has expanded to 60 students from 30, has a new lab and is introducing robotics to children at a younger age.
Some of the money was used to launch a mentoring program at East Palestine Middle School. The students and their mentors meet monthly for two years. “It’s probably more rewarding for the mentors than it is for the students. Philanthropy is definitely time, talent and treasure,” Hays says.
Donors he had never worked with gave to the Road2Recovery race and Hays hopes they will continue to support the United Way and East Palestine recovery efforts.
“It just shows how much good there is in people around here. People write this area off and they shouldn’t. This is what makes America great… small-town America, everyone working to help each other, and it is very nice to see it in action,” Hays says.
The largest sponsor of the Road2Recovery event was Norfolk Southern, which has been donating millions following the derailment. Its CEO, Alan Shaw, attended the race.
“He’s definitely trying to transform this from something negative to something positive about NS, to his credit,” Werner says. “I know there’s people out there who are hurting still. But from what I’ve seen of the guy, he is really trying to help.”
Pictured at top: Matt Werner, chief operating officer at Compco and a resident of East Palestine, speaks to the runners and walkers preparing to start the race at the EP Road2Recovery event on June 10.