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For tornado survivors, 'Cowboy' offers a listening ear

Dave 'Cowboy' Graham stands in front of a damaged gas station in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
Jeff Dean
/
NPR
Dave 'Cowboy' Graham stands in front of a damaged gas station in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.

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

"You can do it!" he shouts to people in cars passing by – many hauling what's left of their belongings. "You can do it! You guys will rebuild, you will!"

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 a neighborhood that's has been reduced to piles of debris.

"You can see it - if you start watching, you can see it on their faces," he says.

Damage is visible from a tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
Jeff Dean / NPR
/
NPR
Damage is visible from a tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.

A helping hand, and a listening ear

Graham, 62, is retired from a career in the military and the insurance industry. So now he can travel from his farm in Ohio to volunteer at crises around the country. He says he's been to more than a dozen disasters, where he often helps out by running supplies to people who need, for example, a generator to make their home 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.

"I've got signs saying, 'Wanna talk, need to talk, should talk?'" he says.

"I'm giving them a safe spot to come to without feeling like they're gonna get preached at or diagnosed. And giving them a place to say, 'Why has stuff like this happened?'"

And people did. Using a can of spray paint, Graham scrawled messages on scraps that are scattered all over the area, inviting people to stop by, and posted signs all over the area around the gas station.

A place to talk

He says one of the residents who stopped by was a local government official.

"He needed to talk," Graham says. "Because he's got the responsibilities of the city, and he's got the responsibility to FEMA. And he's got his own family."

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

"When they came out, there was nothing left...And he said, 'It's never gonna be the same, Cowboy.' And I said, 'That doesn't mean it's gonna be bad. You're right, it'll never be the same.'"

Graham says he has no formal training in counseling - just experience at many disasters.

"I try to use open-ended questions and try to just shut my mouth. I got two ears; they don't need to hear anybody talkin'."

An American flag sits in the rubble of a home in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
Jeff Dean / NPR
/
NPR
An American flag sits in the rubble of a home in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.

Help for 'hurting people'

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 this past weekend in distress that he went with them to a local church to get help. He says his motivation comes from a deep Christian faith he found unexpectedly 20 years ago.

"It gave me a heart for people," he says. "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, I think it's all corrupt. So that's still in my heart. And it gave me eyes to see people - that it's not about race or about how much they make, but hurting people."

Graham says he doesn't bring up religion, but he prays with anyone - of any faith - who asks for it.

A worker walks through a destroyed Baptist Health Deaconess Medical Group building in Dawson Springs.
Jeff Dean / NPR
/
NPR
A worker walks through a destroyed Baptist Health Deaconess Medical Group building in Dawson Springs.

'I need that'

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 had been telling me about, city council member Dusty Vinson.

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

"We had a good conversation and he prayed for me. People need that, I need that," Vinson said. "So it's doing me good for someone like him to be here doing what he's doing. That's what it's gonna take to get through it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dave 'Cowboy' Graham speaks with the driver of a passing vehicle in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
Jeff Dean / NPR
/
NPR
Dave 'Cowboy' Graham speaks with the driver of a passing vehicle in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.