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All but forgotten: Bellington Circle residents still hurting

BELLINGTON CIRCLE — A bus load of Marengo High School students spent much of its Tuesday clearing rubble, fallen limbs and trees from various properties in the remains of a once quiet, secluded neighborhood.

The assistance from the Dixons Mills youths is some of the first Bellington Circle residents have received since the April 15 tornado ravaged their community.

Theirs is a story that has scarcely been told given both their location and the rash of tornadoes that devastated much of west Alabama just 12 days later.

“We by no means want to belittle what happened in Tuscaloosa,” Bellington Circle resident Diane Purse said. “But disaster is disaster, regardless of where it happens. It is just like we have been forgotten.”

Forgetting is not something Diane Purse will find easy to do. She has spent the last month living in a hotel.

The night of April 15, she was in a trailer with her two sisters and a child. The storm rolled the trailer three times with the quartet inside. Diane is the only one of the three sisters who shows few ill effects of the night’s events.

One broke a disk in her neck, another had an artery severed and scarcely held onto her life. Needless to say, the home is destroyed.

“It is something you never want to experience again,” Diane said. “You are just rolling around and at the mercy of God.”

In the days since the incident, Bellington residents have seen very little help come their way. The Red Cross showed up for a few days. FEMA came and went. But most of the work remains.

“No trees are moved. Basically nothing has been done,” Purse said. “Faunsdale, they had heavy equipment the day after. It has been a month and we haven’t had anything.”

Marengo students from the social studies classes of Caleb Churchill did what they could Tuesday, the first of two days they will be in Bellington Circle this week.

“Having them here is a blessing,” resident Delphine Kirkland said. It has been a month and nobody has come and done this work. We can’t do this by ourselves.”

The neighborhood, just five miles west of Linden on Highway 69, falls in a kind of “no man’s land” in regard to receiving help from municipalities. As such, residents have been largely dependent upon their own abilities in cleanup efforts, a prospect which becomes altogether daunting considering the totality of the destruction.

One of the dozen or so structures remains intact. Others are missing the roof or chunks of wall. Most have suffered irreparable damage, losing all structural integrity.

Trees and debris litter most of the dirt and gravel drive connecting the upper half of the neighborhood to the lower. Some residents pick through piles to retrieve personal items. Some man chainsaws in an effort to clear fallen limbs or felled trees.

Tuesday, orange shirts pepper the neighborhood, carrying with them hope and some of the first signs of life in a month.

“We’ve got about 35 kids and six or seven staff members here working,” Churchill said.

He is in his first year with Marengo High School, a position he came across through his involvement with Teach for America.

The Indiana native launched a program to teach his students about leadership and community involvement, skills he knew they would one day need. He did not, however, anticipate their call to action would come so soon.

“We started a services leadership project out at the school. We’ve really been looking for opportunities to get them involved,” Churchill said. “We were looking at taking them out of state and then the tornadoes hit.”

Churchill’s students are able to provide a great deal of assistance in their first day in Bellington Circle, getting a crash course in some of the harsher realities of life in the process.

“It’s good for them being eighth graders to learn about responsibility and helping others,” Kirkland said. “We’re just overwhelmed. We’re just grateful.”

“This is the first big project we’ve been able to do for tornado relief,” Churchill said. “This is the first time they’ve seen devastation like this. One of the kids said he was angry about it.”

Angry or otherwise, the Marengo students and the Sweet Water pupils who came before them are some of the only people who have been moved enough by any emothion to help the residents of Bellington Circle.

The group will return Friday. Churchill will likely be there with anyone who will join him at any time he can.

In the end, it will take more than just the Marengo High students and the few hours a week they can spare to return the Bellington Circle residents to some degree of normalcy.

But rebuilding has to start somewhere and the foundation appears to be peppered with orange shirts and brimming with a desire to help.