As recovery efforts continue following the devastating and deadly outbreak of tornadoes that occurred on the night of Dec. 10 and 11 in Kentucky, the state has received a flood of support from relief organizations and generous individuals across the nation.
On Monday, a 53-foot trailer from Bailey Trucking, packed with toys, arrived in Kentucky so that many of the children affected by the devastation of the tornadoes may still have presents to open for Christmas. The highly successful toy drive was spearheaded by Frankfort resident Tiffany Fuel, who couldn’t stand the thought of children who lost so much also losing their Christmas.
Fuel’s son lives in Kentucky, so when she heard the news, she reached out to make sure members of her family were OK.
“I knew they were talking about storms coming through, and I didn’t really think anything about it,” Fuel said. “I just thought, ‘OK, batten down the hatches.’
“Then, Sunday morning, I saw all of the breaking news stories about the devastation in Kentucky,” she continued. “I reached out to my son. I heard nothing and was getting very worried. But then I finally heard back and heard that it had missed them, but not by much.”
Though Fuel was relieved to hear that her son and his family were safe, she continued to learn more about the devastation.
“I was watching videos through Mayfield, Dawson and all of those areas that had communities our size or bigger that are no longer,” she said. “They were leveled, and the amount of devastation broke my heart.
“I just sat and thought about how that could have easily been us,” Fuel continued. “We could be where they are two weeks before Christmas. Then I looked at my two grandsons lying on the couch, and I thought about those children. At Christmas, they are excited. ‘Santa is coming! Santa is coming!’ Two weeks before Christmas, this happens, and it has taken these children’s homes and every single thing that these kids owned. It has possibly taken a mother, a father, a sibling, grandparents.”
So that Sunday, wishing there was something she could do, Fuel decided to organize a toy drive for those children in Kentucky.
“I had no idea where to even remotely begin,” Fuel admitted. She had never done anything like this before. “But there was an inner voice saying, ‘You’ve got this. You can do it.’ Then it was also knowing all these kids didn’t have anything and some didn’t know what had happened, but they were probably asking ‘How is Santa going to find us?”
Originally from Fort Rucker, Alabama, and formerly a resident of Kentucky, Fuel said she was also motivated by Southern hospitality.
“You look out for your neighbors,” she said. “If they are in need, you help. We would expect or hope that we would get that in return if the shoe was on the other foot.”
So, not sure where to start, Fuel started making phone calls to Frankfort Mayor Judy Sheets, Clinton County Sheriff Rich Kelly and Matron Ashley Kelly, police departments and sheriff offices in Kentucky and then the office of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.
“We have been in contact since the beginning and will remain in contact with one of his staff who is in control of toy drives and things like that,” Fuel said. “I told them this is what I want to do and asked what they needed. The governor’s staff reached out to me and said they needed new, unopened toys, books, electronics, games, board games. So I posted it on social media. I was looking for local merchants to help place donation boxes.”
Fuel said that once WLFI News 18 in Lafayette reached out to her and then aired her story, the donations really started flooding in.
“When it aired, my phone became busier than it was,” Fuel said. “I was responding to messages, phone calls, (Facebook) Messenger messages, ‘What can we donate?’ Then I had people reaching out to me asking how they could volunteer their time.
Once faced with the question of how Fuel would transport so many toys to Kentucky, she first thought about calling her family, many of which are farmers, and having a trailer convoy. In the beginning, she only expected to gather enough toys for a couple skids, but then she started to see just how much more than that she was going to have to move to Kentucky by Dec. 20 – in time to sort, prepare and distribute in time for Christmas.
So, she reached out to Bailey Trucking.
“I mentioned what I was doing, and they said they are on board,” Fuel said. “They said it is taken care of.”
Fuel worked in shipping and receiving, so she knew that she was going to need to make it as easy as possible to have the toys unloaded once they arrived in Kentucky.
“I was thinking that I needed to come up with some skids to put all of this on,” she said. “That is when I reached out to Rich Reck at NHK. I told him what I was doing, and responded back that ‘I saw you segment on the news. I’ve got you covered. I will supply pallets and coordinated boxes with lids, and I will even supply you with volunteers.’
“Everything just fell into place like it was supposed to,” she continued. “I was so afraid that it would be utter chaos, but it went smoothly – better than I would have expected in a million years.”
Fuel said that not only did the toy drive have boxes in Clinton County, but they also had boxes being filled in Tippecanoe County thanks to her counterpart there – Kayla Abdulrazzaq.
“She was like a copy of me,” Fuel said. “She was over there sharing on her Facebook page, and she was going to these places, pulling the toys in and taking them to the drop site.
“One place was a Dollar General in Tippecanoe County,” she added. “They called her and asked if she was coming to pick them up because they had six carts full of toys. She called and told me and, of course, we were both ecstatic, especially me because I thought I would end up with two pallets. But it just kept pouring in and pouring in. We had somebody contact us that had over 300 toys they wanted to donate to the cause. I had a couple reach out to me, and they sell toys online. She said, ‘I have 300 Paw Patrol popup tents I want to donate, and I have 100 Magindoodles. On Friday, the last day for drop-offs at Old Stoney, I had a message sent to me that the box was overflowing, and I had donations going all the way down the staircase.
When faced with the task of moving the Lafayette site toys to Bailey Trucking for loading, a solution once again fell into place.
“The Jeep Club Tippecanoe Chapter happened to stop at Amaco in Lafayette to drop off bags of toys, and they wanted to know if there was anything else they could do,” Fuel said. “They volunteered their time, their trailer and vehicle. They loaded up an enclosed trailer.”
Once they saw they would need another enclosed trailer to take the rest of the toys from Lafayette to Bailey Trucking, Fuel reached out to Sheriff Kelly and Matron Kelly, who provided a second trailer, loaded it and brought it to Bailey Trucking on Sunday.
“When the toys started rolling into Bailey Trucking, it was overwhelming,” Fuel said. “Extremely overwhelming. You see this big, 53-foot trailer thinking there is no way you are going to fill that.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” she added. “Here is something I have never done in my life, and I have this short amount of time, and look at the outpouring of donations and the outpouring of love and kindness. Volunteers started showing up at Bailey to help unload trailers, pack these boxes and load the truck. It just kept going.”
On top of packing the trailer full of toys, NHK also donated $5,000 in gift cards.
“That was overwhelming,” Fuel said.
Once it was loaded, the 53-foot trailer full of toys made its way to Kentucky where it arrived on Monday morning.
“I got confirmation at noon today that it was at the terminal being unloaded,” Fuel said Monday afternoon. “If it had not been for all the volunteers that I had and if it had not been for the Mayor and her staff, the City of Frankfort, the merchants, Bailey Trucking, Rich and Ashley Kelly, my friends in Lafayette, Kayla and her family, this dream would have never came true. Clinton County and Tippecanoe County pulled together to know that on Christmas morning these children are going to wake up, and they are going to see all of these toys. In a very devastating time for them and a very sad time for them, it is going to bring happiness to them and also a sense of hope.”
Governor Beshear’s staff sent Fuel a message on Monday informing her that the truck arrived at the terminal.
“They wanted to say to everybody up here, ‘Thank you,’” Fuel said.
Mayor Sheets was impressed with what Fuel was able to orchestrate in such a narrow timeframe
“Tiffany called me a week before we had everything loaded,” Mayor Sheets said. “She had one week to work on this. I knew it would be a big project. She did a fantastic job on it. I am proud of our community for pulling together, and it says a lot about the City of Frankfort and our community.
“Hopefully, it will make Christmas brighter for those who were affected by the tornadoes,” Sheets added.