For tornado survivors, 'Cowboy' offers a listening ear Dave Graham of Frederickstown, Ohio, has volunteered after natural disasters around the country. He's been spending time offering to listen to stories of tornado survivors in Dawson Springs, Ky.

For tornado survivors, 'Cowboy' offers a listening ear

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After a natural disaster like the tornadoes this month in western Kentucky, there are urgent basic needs like food and shelter. But people also have deep emotional needs when coping with such massive loss. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Dawson Springs, Ky., where she met one volunteer trying to help meet those needs.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Dave Graham is standing beside the ruins of a gas station just down the street from one of the hardest-hit parts of town.

DAVE GRAHAM: You can do it. You can do it. You guys will rebuild. You will.

MCCAMMON: Graham is tall with graying hair and a beard wearing a cowboy hat and jean jacket. He cheers people on as they drive in and out of the neighborhood, which has been reduced to piles of debris. Many are hauling carloads of what's left of their belongings.

GRAHAM: You can see it. If you start watching, you can see it on their faces. You can do it. You can do it.

MCCAMMON: Using a can of spray paint, Graham scrawled messages on scraps that are scattered all over the area, inviting people to stop by.

GRAHAM: We got up signs saying, you want to talk, need to talk, should talk? I'm giving them a safe spot to come to without feeling like they're going to get preached at or diagnosed and giving them a place to say, why does stuff like this happen?

MCCAMMON: Graham is 62 and retired from a career first in the military and then the insurance industry. So now he can travel from his farm in Ohio to volunteer at crises around the country. He says he often helps out by running supplies to people who need, for example, a generator to make their homes livable. But after seeing the sadness on people's faces as they returned to their homes after other disasters, Graham says this time he mostly wanted to offer just to listen.

GRAHAM: I heard from a person that's involved in the government here. And first he needed to talk because he's got the responsibilities of the city and he's got the responsibility to FEMA and he's got his own family.

MCCAMMON: Graham said the man told him about hiding from the storm with several family members and neighbors.

GRAHAM: And when they came out, there was nothing left. And he said, it's never going to be the same, cowboy. And I said, that doesn't mean it's going to be bad. You're right. It will never be the same. What I'm hearing from him is, Christmas is a week away. What do we do?

MCCAMMON: Graham has no formal training in counseling, just experience at a lot of disasters.

GRAHAM: I try to use open-ended questions and try to just shut my mouth. I got two ears. They don't want to hear - need to hear me talking.

MCCAMMON: For people needing more than simply a friendly ear after a crisis, there are professional resources available through groups like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army. There's also a federal disaster helpline in Spanish and English. Graham says he met one person over the weekend in such distress that he went with them to a local church to get help. When I asked why he does all of this, he said he's motivated by a deep Christian faith he found unexpectedly 20 years ago.

GRAHAM: It gave me a heart for people. I don't want to be a preacher guy. That's what made me an atheist. I don't want to be a church leader because that's what made - I think it's all corrupt. So that stole my heart, and it gave me eyes to see people that - not about race or about how much they make but hurting people.

MCCAMMON: Graham says he doesn't bring up religion, but he prays with anyone of any faith who asks for it. As we wrapped up our conversation, a man pulled up in a car and thanked Graham for talking with him earlier in the day. As it turned out, he was the local official Graham was telling me about.

DUSTY VINSON: Dusty Vinson. I'm a city council member here in Dawson.

MCCAMMON: Vinson says it was helpful just to be able to tell someone what he and his family had survived.

VINSON: And it missed us by a block. You know, we had a good conversation, and he prayed for me. And people need that. I need that. So it's doing me good for someone like him to be here doing what he's doing. And that's what's going to take to get through it.

MCCAMMON: Vinson says he's feeling a little better than he was just days ago and feeling grateful for all the people who've come to help his community begin healing.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Dawson Springs, Ky.

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