While some residential neighborhoods like to get together for block parties, the neighborhood surrounding Sandstone Drive in Van Buren recently put together a gathering of its own – a cleanup party.

The event, held Jan. 12, was certainly not the norm. But, then again, nothing has been normal for residents of this neighborhood since a tornado twisted up their lives on the night of Nov. 30.

“There are a lot of things that have happened during that time,” said Jared Black, whose house, located on the corner of Sandstone and Pearl, was not a total loss but certainly made unlivable by the storm. “We had to try to find a new vehicle and a place to live. We temporarily stayed with my parents until we got an apartment, so we’ve spent a lot of time moving and a lot of coordinating with insurance and contractors. Every day has been really busy.”

Jared Black, along with his wife, Lori, and their two children, rode out the tornado inside their house that night. They plan on moving back in after repairs are complete.

“We had some minor structural damage on one of the back bedrooms and several broken windows,” he said. “And we had major roof damage with several holes. A dormer and the chimney blew off.”

Amidst the busy days of finding a new residence and vehicle, and of dealing with insurance matters, came the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

“It’s been difficult,” said Lori Black. “Our kids are still children so we’ve just been trying to keep the consistency, especially during the holidays. That was really difficult and upsetting, especially for our oldest child not getting to have Christmas at home and just being at home. We’re just trying to keep everything as normal as possible. We’ve just tried comforting them because I know they had a lot of anxiety after the tornado.”

Just as they were right in the middle of the disaster back in November, the four members of the Black family were right in the middle of the cleanup on Jan. 12, helping their neighbors, along with the approximately 300 volunteers, fill dumpsters and trailers with debris left from the storm.

“It’s definitely humbling see all these people out here helping,” said Jared Black. “It makes you proud to be a citizen of Van Buren. We’re just real appreciative of all our friends and family who were willing to come out here, and for the churches. I’m just glad to be a part of this community.”

A few houses down Sandstone, at what’s left of the house belonging to Chris and Laura Christensen, a group of volunteers, like ants on a cupcake crumb, converged on a pile of rubble seconds after an empty dumpster had been placed at the curb.

“It’s overwhelming,” Laura Christensen, cousin of Lori Black, said of the volunteers. “It gives you such a sense of pride in our community. We’re grateful for the love and support of so many people. You think you’re just a small person and then you see all these people out here out of the love of their heart, giving this time to help.”

The Christenson’s house suffered extensive damage when the tornado hit. Since then it’s been hard for passersby to forget the image of a piece of lumber sticking straight up out of their roof, lumber that probably came from the back of the roof, which was peeled over to the front – or street – side of the roof.

But that was just one of the oddities the Christensens experienced as a result of the tornado.

“We had the privacy fence back behind the house come through our living room,” Laura Christensen said. “We were walking through it after the fact and didn’t realize what it was. We had a half-eaten apple that wasn’t ours wedged in a window and all kinds of stuff in our back yard that wasn’t ours. I found rocking chair slats wedged into the ground that wasn’t from our chair. Our daughter’s room was covered in insulation, and yet her pearl earrings were still in the dish where she keeps them.”

What the Christensens thought was hail during the storm was actually debris from neighboring houses being blown against their house. As they ran to their safe spot in the house the Christmas tree fell and knocked down their daughter.

“(Chris) grabbed our daughter because she fell and we just got everybody in the room and put our bodies over the kids,” Laura Christensen said, adding, “We didn’t truly understand the magnitude of the destruction until the next morning.”

The Christensens were unable to continue living in their house, returning only to gather any remaining items.

“Each time you come back you’re filled with those same emotions,” said Laura Christensen. “It’s hard to put exact words on that type of emotion.”

On the day of the cleanup she again experienced that emotion, that is, until she saw all the volunteers who came to help.

“I’ve had my breaking moment coming back out here today and seeing it again,” she said, “but then it’s a different type of good emotion when you look out and see so many people out here willing to help – some you know and some you don’t.”

The Christensens lived in a motel for a couple of week before finding a house to rent two days before Christmas.

“It was different,” she said. “We were definitely in a different frame of mind, but in a good way, because we could say we have each other. That was the greatest gift for Christmas. We didn’t process Christmas the way most Americans were doing. We were thankful we were all safe and together and that we could be with one another for Christmas.”

Still, she said, “It’s going to take time to heal emotionally.”