With a faith born of not of words, but of deeds: Nebraska community helps its own

April 2022 was heartbreaking for southwest Nebraska.

The 702 and the 739 fires burned over 100,000 acres, two men lost their lives, homes were burned and livelihoods destroyed. With a faith born not of words, but of deeds, the community came together to make a difference for producers who barely saved their houses but in some cases lost nearly everything else.

Indianola, Neb., rancher John O’Dea said the flames consumed hay and in some cases, livestock. “Right now we are between winter pastures and grass, with the cows in small pastures and feed stacked up in piles. They were lucky to save their buildings and homes but their stack yards got burned off. Early on most of the cows were evacuated but later on there were some losses and ongoing losses. We worked all weekend hauling cows to safer places,” O’Dea said.

While the fire missed O’Dea’s place he still felt the need to help his neighbors. He had folks calling right away donating loads of hay with the first load arriving Sunday. One load came 300 miles from Colorado. Fifty loads of hay arrived during the week. Jared Sayer, Steve Rice and O’Dea helped coordinate donated feed and fencing supplies and made sure it got into the hands of those who needed it the most. Others also have been organizing feed donations in other locations.


The men felt like it still wasn’t enough and on Monday night April 25, they came up with the idea of having a benefit supper for the burned out producers. Tuesday morning they booked the Indianola Community building for Sunday evening, May 1, and donations started rolling in. “A lot of people donated their time and their hearts, not a physical object,” O’Dea said.

Beef and pork were donated for the auction, livestock feed, fertilizer, mineral tubs, breeding services, bull buying credits, guns, seed, Husker tickets and desserts. Local businesses also contributed, a veterinarian donated preg-checking for 200 head of cows, a windmill business gave five windmill service calls, an ATV service appointment, custom chinks and fertilizer application. Rick Wilcox with Wilcox Well Drilling offered to drill and case up to a 400 foot well for someone in the area who lost a water well due to the fire

“Our community came together. Our little town of Indianola doubled in size at 6 p.m.,” said O’Dea.

“We hoped and planned on feeding 500. We lost count at 750. We sold burger for $23 per pound at auction. Wet distillers brought $350 per ton, $1,300 pies. Lots of pies bringing well over $100.

“Lots of $100 bills in the donation boxes. Buyers from different regions of the country.

A rural community came with open hearts and pocketbooks to help hurting producers. Photo by Rose Weskamp

“Folks gave till it hurt. Then they gave a little more,” O’Dea posted on Facebook. “Friends from all over gave time and skill to make it happen. They shared God’s gifts. It was an incredible night. The funds raised will go a long way toward healing some wounds. More importantly, the turnout showed so many families how much rural America cared. We have seen more drama, sorrow, natural violence, and compassion than Hollywood could ever pack into a movie. In nine days. Our community needed tonight. We came together. We laughed and hugged and cried a little. What a great place to be. We are going to be OK. We will persevere. It’s what we do.”


The event raised $122,000 which will be used to buy feed, mineral supplement and fencing supplies. John O’Dea, Jon Harris, Chelsea Dickson and Nick Dunn organized and accepted donations, Janet Rippe clerked, Bob Haag, Adam Webber and Justin Banzhaff auctioneered. Numerous individuals donated food to the supper including one who was a fire victim himself. Michelle O’Dea was in charge of the desserts for the auction, Kelli Jensen took care of side dishes. Randy and Dan Harper, Troy and Carter Van Pelt, Nick Dunn and Jake O’Dea grilled the meat with Nick Dunn owner of the Rocket Restaurant even going to his establishment for more meat when they started running short.

O’Dea said the line of people waiting for food was four to five wide and stretched two blocks at times. Rose Weskamp from McCook, Neb., grew up in the area but only recently moved back after years in California. “I saw $2,000 cinnamon rolls, people waiting in line for two hours and the only restaurant in town fired up their grill to help feed people. Yet they never ran out of food. I saw multiple items be sold and donated back to sell again.”

“Our local support was great. But the folks from all over the country who sent bids or donations was pretty phenomenal as well. I have not seen the report yet from Janet. I personally know of buyers from Washington, Colorado, South Dakota and Kansas. We had donations for the auction from Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and here at home. Now the bidders gets interesting. In a big way. My sons and I had bidders from Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Illinois and (a local serviceman in) Qatar yesterday. We had multiple people bidding on the same lots different times. I had a “preliminary auction” with some of those bidders ahead of time because we knew it would be busy when the time came. Most of those absentee bidders came up empty. But they participated. Most importantly, they displayed love for people and a community that they will probably never see for the most part. To me, that is rather special. Our rural communities are pretty special. At the same time, good people find a way to help regardless of their zip code,” O’Dea posted on Facebook.

The producers will be able to repair fences, set tanks and be able to survive until their cover crops are ready and maybe be able to go to grass late summer. There are programs available to them but those can take a lot of time to be of much help. “We are going to get through it, it’s what we do. We are so resilient in this corner of the state because we have been ignored by our state government, we have to save ourselves. We had over 100,000 acres burned, lives lost, firefighters badly burned and tens of millions of dollars in property and yield potential lost and zero national news coverage.”

“This has shown me once again how many great people are in this country. Our small community pulled together. The outpouring of love from across this country was mind blowing,” he said.

But perhaps even more heartwarming than the monetary donations was that Sunday night after the benefit a beautiful rain fell and Monday morning the blackened region awoke to puddles.


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