A NORTH MISSISSIPPI DISASTER RELIEF MINISTRY IS REBUILDING LIVES, EIGHT DAYS AT A TIME.
WRITTEN BY Clint Kimberling | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
Mr. Rogers of television fame is known for telling his viewers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Steve Tybor is one of those “helpers” you can find during scary times. When floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters strike, he springs into action, looking for
those in need of his help. Tybor is executive director and co-founder of Eight Days of Hope, a faith-based disaster relief ministry that focuses energy and resources on mobilizing volunteers and donations to help communities in the aftermath of disaster.
Eight Days of Hope’s national headquarters are located in eastern Pontotoc County, not far from the Tupelo city limits. In May 2019 the organization dedicated a new building that includes administrative offices, a kitchen, a training center and a three-story, 60,000-square-foot warehouse for holding supplies and equipment waiting to be deployed. The organization also has a northeast satellite location in Buffalo, New York, and in October opened a midwest satellite location in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
These satellite locations allow rapid response teams to mobilize and get to a disaster area much faster. Having supplies and volunteers ready to deploy at a moment’s notice makes a huge difference.
“During and after the 2014 tornado in Tupelo, we found that ministry opportunities abound right after a disaster,” Tybor said. “That can be clearing debris, tarping a roof, or just giving someone a hug.”
A native of Buffalo, New York, Tybor relocated to Tupelo in 1999 because of a job opportunity. But in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Tybor’s career path took a different turn.
Tybor got a call from his father in New York, who told him, “Let’s go help someone down there. Get some friends together and find someone we can help.”
Hoping to rally a few people beyond his limited network, Tybor asked American Family Radio to run a single spot asking for volunteers to share the workload. He ended up leading a group of 684 people that helped 84 families in Waveland and Bay St. Louis. Tybor describes the trip as a life-changing experience.
Those simple instructions from his father launched a disaster response ministry that has helped thousands of families recover, and provided millions of hours of volunteer labor. What was meant to be a one-time trip was so successful and so fulfilling to everyone involved that it was repeated over a dozen times in the next 13 years. When hurricanes Rita, Irene, Isaac and Harvey struck the Gulf, and caused flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Nashville, Tennessee, Tybor rallied volunteers to help those in need.
Eight Days of Hope has been featured in USA Today, on Fox News and The Weather Channel, and former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour named it the top volunteer organization of the year in 2007. In 2014, Tybor was recognized for his tireless and invaluable work when he received the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis National Jefferson Award. The Jefferson Award is the nation’s highest honor for public and community service. Today, leading Eight Days of Hope is Tybor’s full-time job since leaving the building material industry in 2017. Tybor and his army of volunteers are standing by, ready to help whenever the need arises next.
“We bring thousands and help where we can, for as long as we can,” Tybor said. “We want to love and help people when they have nowhere to turn.”
The name Eight Days of Hope carries a lot of significance. Eight days is the amount of time volunteers commit to helping disaster victims. And Tybor points out that in the Bible, the number eight signifies new beginnings.
“We’re bringing fresh hope to people,” Tybor said. “Giving them a new beginning.”
A substantial amount of preplanning and advance work takes place so that when volunteers descend on a site, they can hit the ground running and make the most of their time there. That means partnering with an existing community organization to identify families that need help, purchasing building materials, clearing permits, finding volunteer lodging and having meals planned and ready to serve.
A typical volunteer day begins at 4 a.m. when the food team begins preparing to feed volunteers. Breakfast is served, followed by a short devotion. Then it’s time to go out and serve at designated sites. This may include anything from demolition tasks to hanging drywall or repairing a roof. Dinner is served at 5:30 p.m., followed by an evening devotion led by a local pastor. Then it’s time to get to bed and get ready to do it all over again.
Volunteers sleep wherever there’s an empty space, including church gyms and campsites. The organization owns trucks that can supply water if it isn’t available.
“We live simple lives for those eight days,” Tybor said. “Everyone recognizes that it’s all for a common good.”
Admittedly, a week is not enough time for a family to recover from having their lives turned upside down. It’s a unique model for a relief organization, but Tybor describes their efforts as a steroid shot to a community in need. And there’s a unique secondary effect that the work has on volunteers. About half of them return to participate in the mission for at least a second time.
“Not only are the families and homeowners who are on the receiving end of our charity getting a fresh start, but the volunteers are also changed forever,” Tybor said. “In turn, that allows the ministry to grow and continue.”
Amy and Chas Kirby of Tupelo were Eight Days of Hope volunteers. They traveled to LaPlace, Louisiana, in 2013 to aid victims of Hurricane Isaac. The Kirbys were only able to stay for three days, but the experience made a lasting impression.
“We didn’t want to leave,” Amy Kirby said. “And we came back with the sense that we could be doing more.”
A year later, the Kirbys found themselves on the other side of the volunteer relationship when an F3 tornado touched down in north Mississippi. When the Kirbys’ insurance claim did not cover all the necessary home repairs they turned to Eight Days of Hope for help with replacing windows, doors and vinyl siding.
“I remember there were people all over, everybody doing what they could,” Kirby said. “From picking up trash, to just handing out Popsicles — lending a hand however they could. For me, it was the first time I had experienced something I needed help recovering from. It’s a huge blessing what they did for us, and I felt the love of Christ through it.”