OTTUMWA — It's one thing to send a check to help the population of Moore, Okla. It's far more rewarding to hand a toy to a child there who has nothing.
“This couple from our church tries to volunteer at any disaster, and they’re going to Oklahoma," said Doug Macintyre, who attends the Hickory Grove Church in Ottumwa.
Jeff Diltz, 55, attends every Sunday with his wife. They may miss a Sunday while they're distributing toys to kids in Moore.
On Thursday, Diltz was painting a church bus that may or may not make the trip to Oklahoma. They’ll drive whatever is right for the job at hand.
"In Joplin, we used a church bus that had been gutted. It had lights in it and air conditioning, but in back all it had was carpeting. We turned it into a toy store and gave the children all toys collected by the people of Ottumwa."
There are volunteers helping with "more serious" matters in the devastated city. And most grownups, Diltz said, are also focused on more serious matters. When disaster cleanup slows down, parents are getting out insurance paperwork. The kids right now deserve some time to be kids, he said.
"We're going to do Christmas in July. They could use some toys now, not in December. Right now, kids are sitting in motel rooms or living with relatives. You've seen the pictures; these guys have nothing," said Diltz. "We want them to have a special day, be blessed and loved, and let them know people care about them."
Macintyre said Ottumwa Walmart is going to help out. From 9 a.m. to at least 3 p.m. Saturday, volunteers will be posted in front of the store. They'll have fliers explaining their mission and that shoppers can purchase a toy for a child in Oklahoma. Last time, they started out with two shopping carts but had filled 15 by the time they were done. Macintyre said Walmart will then ship merchandise to Oklahoma, where Diltz and other volunteers will distribute toys. But it hasn't been the toys that most impress children in devastated areas. It's that people in Ottumwa would care what happened to children in, for example, Joplin, Mo.
While the couple travels to various churches and festivals as part of their missionary work, the disaster response is not the best opportunity to spend hours preaching the gospel.
"We will do about an hour program with games, try to cheer the kids up, let them know that God loves them and we love them," said Diltz. "We don't go into theology other than letting kids know Jesus cares about them and people care about them."
Toys give the kids something constructive to do and a chance to escape from the disaster around them for a little while. For those in locations with power restored, Diltz is bringing a donation he received of 20,000 Disney DVDs. Kids go on the bus with parents and choose several toys.
"We went to Joplin in October and then in July. Everybody was sunburned and the whole thing; it was 105 degrees. There were kids there that told us they lost a parent or parents that had lost kids; we were told that twice last time," said Diltz. "We took about 40 people from the Ottumwa area, and I told the kids that these people stood out in front of stores for weeks asking people to donate toys to them. Some of the kids cried when they heard that. I told the Joplin kids there were people all over the country who cared about them. The kids couldn't believe people all the way from Iowa would do that for them."
Church groups or others who want to help can do so, he said, though he does "not take anybody or bring anybody back." The logistics of doing so end up taking as much effort as actually getting toys to the kids, he explained.
For information, visit the couple's ministry at firehousekidz.com or call 563-209-6279.
To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark.