When the tornadoes hit, Melissa Alexander wasted no time finding a volunteer project to help survivors.
That’s who Melissa is, though — she goes above and beyond for people, and doesn’t seem to think twice about it. That makes her among the most prolific tornado-response volunteers in HON.org’s database, having registered for dozens of projects and logged hundreds of volunteer hours.
“After the tornado hit, I knew I couldn’t just stay home,” she says. “I’m from Texas, and that’s just not what you do there. After a disaster, if someone needs your help, you just go.”
Melissa lives in Hermitage, about a block away from the path of destruction that spanned more than 60 miles overnight on March 2, 2020. She was without power for four days, and, looking back, is grateful to have had the opportunity to get out of the house and be of service to others.
She began volunteering at the Hermitage Community Center, sorting donations of apples, oranges, and other food and essentials. After about a week, when the center was running smoothly, she began looking for other ways to help. She had already attended volunteer leadership training at the Hands On Nashville headquarters. A liaison from Mayor John Cooper’s office determined she would be a great fit to begin supporting case management by alerting survivors to the resources that were available.
Melissa began canvassing the Hermitage area daily, going door to door to ask residents a series of questions:
“Are you working with a good contractor? Are they licensed?”
“Do you have your tetanus shot?”
“Do you know how to get to the community center?”
“Do you have your water and power turned on?”
It was more or less what she had been trained for, Melissa says, and she enjoyed the spark of hope residents would show when she was able to share information on a resource they were previously unaware of.
“‘They would ask, ‘Who are you with?’” and I would say, ‘Oh, I’m just a volunteer with Hands On Nashville, going around to make sure you’re aware of all of the services available in the community after a tornado.’ They loved it,” she says. “They were so grateful that somebody was just coming around and checking in on them.”
Melissa volunteered for weeks this way, reporting each morning to the city’s liaison, receiving her neighborhood assignments, then heading out with her bags of apples and oranges to distribute throughout the community. She estimates she spent more than 300 hours volunteering over the course of three months.
One day in particular stands out to Melissa — the day she was reassigned to North Nashville, on March 27. Rain was moving into the area, and the city needed additional help identifying houses that needed tarps.
“I went to Project Connect Nashville and started volunteering over there, four days a week, for about three months,” she says. “I’m still pretty committed to Project Connect. They do a lot for that North Nashville community.”
Once in North Nashville, Melissa says she found strength in the community to keep coming back day after day. The work was tiring, but, without fail, each morning when she arrived, there would be 30 people waiting outside Project Connect’s doors for a hot meal.
“When you see that many people waiting to get a hot meal, you can’t just say no,” Melissa says. “And the people were so eager for help. They wanted to know what resources were available or how to do something.”
And that’s how Melissa met Mary.
“She’s the lady who made me cry on my first day,” Melissa says. “A neighbor had called to bring her meals, and I was the first one to have checked up on her since the storm. That day she was upset because her FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) request was denied, and she just bawled.”
Melissa bonded with Mary, who is 83 years old, right away. She worked to get Mary’s phone back in service, reinstall her security light, and create some raised garden beds for her. They still talk or text regularly.
“I even helped her organize the inside of her house, and we shredded papers for three days,” Melissa says. “She kept everything. She had checkbooks from the ’80s. So I helped her shred papers, and it was so fun. Older people have the best stories.”
Throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns, Melissa continued to work with Project Connect. She’s an avid mask-wearer, and says she practiced good hygiene long before the pandemic, crediting her work as a behavioral analyst who often worked with clients with auto-immune disorders. She says the Red Cross and Project Connect were thorough with their protocols, and that she never felt unsafe while volunteering.
Melissa’s background has proved invaluable throughout her time volunteering. Being from Texas, she was familiar with disaster response and FEMA, and by working with lower-income families she’s also familiar with food-assistance and housing programs. As Project Connect transitioned their services to working mainly from the resource center, Melissa jokes that she became known as the “resource guru.” To this day she has about 60 bookmarks — in multiple languages — stored in her phone to offer to people for help.
“You always have a skill,” she says, “and you always have something you can do that goes toward something that someone else needs.”
And while the recovery process has spanned the past year, Melissa knows there’s still more recovery and healing that needs to happen.
“There’s so many houses still not touched,” she says. “You can drive through Hermitage now and see the changes. But in North, there’s still boards on the windows, tarps on the roofs. There’s still so much work to be done.”
Tornado survivors can get access to a variety of resources and support through the Tornado Recovery Connection. If you know any tornado survivors, please make sure they know to call TRC at 615-270-9255.