WAYNE, Neb. | Ken Merlin didn't lose his home when a tornado struck Wayne on Oct. 4.
Yet, since then, he's been able to identify with those forced to live in temporary housing without the usual comforts of home.
Since arriving in Wayne on Oct. 16, Merlin has spent nearly 50 days living out of his 1978 Dodge Transvan camper in Wayne's Victor Park while helping families affected by the tornado receive the help they need to rebuild.
A St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteer who called in to help with the tornado recovery effort, Merlin is living true to the Catholic lay organization's philosophy of helping the poor and other individuals in need.
"It's walking with them. You walk with them," Merlin said.
Merlin generally spends four days a week in Wayne. He's split the remainder of his time in his Lincoln, Neb., home and helping folks in Colorado recover from last fall's flooding.
While watching news reports of the tornado, Merlin knew something had to be done.
"I saw the tornado hit, and I was immediately concerned that we should be up there doing something," he said.
Merlin was called in by another relief group. Since his arrival, he's met with 24 families whose homes were damaged or destroyed. As a disaster case manager, he's gathered information about each family and is helping them get the services and funds they need to recover.
"The whole idea is to help them deal with what's happened and move on," the semi-retired volunteer said.
He can certainly empathize with them. Merlin's home in Lincoln may be safe and sound, but when he's in Wayne, his tight, mobile living quarters lack certain basic amenities, such as a bathroom. The city has set him up with a membership at the Community Activity Center so he has a place to shower.
Winter camping has also been interesting.
"When we were having the subzero temperatures, it was a little bit on edge," Merlin said. "I've got a little electric space heater. It was barely able to keep up."
It's a small inconvenience for a lifelong camper who had to sleep in his helicopter when he served with the U.S. Army in Operation Desert Storm.
And, while his living conditions may present a challenge at times, Merlin knows he's fortunate. He's here to help people who, in some cases, lost just about everything. It's a sacrifice that's well worth it.
"Spiritually, it's rewarding. Just the idea I feel a little closer to the Lord," he said. "I think faith plays a big role in motivation and quality of service."
He's not alone. He ticks off the names of several other churches and faith-based organizations that have been critical, he said, to the recovery efforts here.
Merlin said he's not sure how much longer his semi-nomadic service time will last. Total recovery could take up to two years, he said, but he may be relieved by another St. Vincent de Paul Society member before then. He's pleased to see how much progress has been made.
"All the families have a good recovery plan. They're putting them into effect.
"They're rolling along."
Just like Merlin, up and down the streets of Wayne in his own temporary housing, helping 24 families secure a permanent home.