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MARION — The Long Island, New York, woman had been told it'd cost $22,000 to clear away the pine trees strewn and other debris that littered her yard after winds from Hurricane Sandy struck in the fall of 2012.

When members of the yellow-jacket- and yellow-shirt-wearing Southern Baptist Disaster Relief got that clean-up assignment in New York, they assembled a group of about 18 volunteers, tackling the downed trees and other debris, clearing the woman's yard in a single day.

"She was a nonbeliever," said Jan Kragness, volunteer chaplain for the group. "She said, 'Why do you do this?'"

"We said, 'We do this because this is our way of serving Jesus,'" Jan Kragness explained.

The group is clear that that is their mission — serving God and spreading the gospel message about him as they seek to provide comfort and clean up. They don't care that it takes washing down flooded walls to kill mold and mildew, sawing up fallen trees, crawling under homes to remove dead snakes, pulling down Sheetrock and other parts of a home.

"And doing it while you're standing in six to 10 inches of mud," said Don Kragness.

And they're off again: The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team had planned to spend a few days in Flint, Michigan, giving out and fitting water filters on faucets in homes impacted by the city's lead-contaminated water crisis. Some members had already gone there, but that work was unexpectedly shortened when a great number of residents picked up the water filters themselves to put on their faucets, volunteer Buford Stout said.

Soon after, another request for help rolled in, this one from a part of flooded Louisiana.

Sunday morning, instead of heading to Flint, the relief team is headed to Leesville, Louisiana, located in the west-central part of the state, to help with flood cleanup there.

On Friday morning, the tool trailer they will take to the site was already packed, filled with chainsaws, sump pumps, buckets and assorted other items.

Don Kragness said they also have three large 53-foot long semi-trailers, outfitted as a feeding unit with four convection ovens, two large skillets — both Don and his wife hold their arms about three feet apart — and other items; with this kitchen, relief workers area capable of providing 40,000 meals a day.

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"It's so big that it only goes out on big (projects)," Don said.

That trailer went to New York, where it served meals for a year after 9/11, Don Kragness said.

Jan talks about the time after 9/11 that they visited New York City to see the memorial formed near the base of the buildings. They were wearing those goldenrod-yellow jackets, which caught the attention of officers and others manning the entrance line to the building.

"They said 'we know you from 9/11,'" Jan said, "and they gave us First Responder tickets" and let them go in ahead of the others waiting for tickets.

In addition to working in New York City after 9/11 and in the Long Island after the hurricane damage, they have also worked after an early October 2013 blizzard that killed thousands of cattle in South Dakota and recently in Warren, Michigan, to help with flooding.

During the end-of-the-year/New Year flooding in Southern Illinois, they also helped with relief efforts, including clean-up and child-care — essential for keeping young children occupied while their parents take care of much-needed paperwork and aid assistance.

"We do a lot of work locally," Stout said. "We probably do maybe five to 10 big ones, but again, it depends on Mother Nature and what happens there."

The Williamson County Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team was formed in 2008, the year before the super derecho hit parts of Southern Illinois. That derecho clean-up was its first relief mission, which members estimated lasted six months.

The Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief is comprised of five teams from Illinois, predominantly retirees who are members of various Southern Baptist churches.

The disaster relief frequently works with local Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), American Red Cross and the Salvation Army groups.

"We go to do a job," Don Kragness said, "but that's not why we're there. We're there to minister to hurting people — that's why we're there."

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Reporter

Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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