published Saturday, April 27th, 2013

'I just can't throw them away': Patty Bullion made Facebook page to help return heirlooms to families

Debris is seen from a line of destroyed homes at the Willbrook subdivision in Cleveland, Tenn., after the April 27, 2011, storms.
Debris is seen from a line of destroyed homes at the Willbrook subdivision in Cleveland, Tenn., after the April 27, 2011, storms.
Photo by John Rawlston.

In a corner of Patty Bullion's garage in Athens, Ala., is a shelf full of orphaned heirlooms.

There are folded quilts. Piled with them is a little Christmas stocking with a name and date stitched to it. There's a homemade photo collage, pieced together on the back of a television box. And there's a boot-sized box, brimming with photographs.

These are the remnants from Bullion's two-year effort to reunite tornado-strewn debris -- Bibles, bank statements, photos, diplomas -- with their owners.

Bullion's immensely popular Facebook page, "Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes," began when she found an ultrasound photo in her yard after the storm passed.

Soon, maintaining the site became like a full-time job, Bullion says. Besides the people who found the objects and the people who claimed them, there were other people who just wanted to help narrow down the debris' origins.

"We got such an overwhelming response from all over the world. I had people like detectives on there," she said. "It restored my faith in humanity. You hear all these stories about how bad things are in the world, how bad people are. I could have started that page, but it couldn't have worked without all the wonderful people who got involved."

It took almost a year for that first ultrasound photo to get back to the family of the baby. It turned out that the family was from Mississippi, and that the baby was by that time almost 2 years old.

"His mother was so grateful to get it back. She said when he grew up, she couldn't wait to tell him that his picture helped hundreds of people reclaim their own keepsakes."

The number of heart-stirring reunions grew, with about 2,000 item-owner reunions. People from all over the Southeast sent her piles of photos and papers from the storm, unsure what to do with them.

As the year wore on, though, Bullion decided the site needed an end date. Efforts to keep up with the page had become too overwhelming.

Plus, she didn't like the idea of those intimate pictures of people's damaged goods to linger on the web. The storm had already strewn their privacy to the wind.

"I just felt it was time for all of us to move on, to start getting back to day-to-day life," she says.

She took the site down at the one-year anniversary of the April 27 tornadoes. But she held onto many items, hauling or mailing boxes of photos to towns for locals to sort through.

While matches have been found, other folks in the towns have just continued to add their own findings to her collection.

Bullion says that even if she can't find owners, she'll keep stowing the items. She can't explain why.

"I don't know. I just can't throw them away," she says. "They're things that people sent to me. They're entrusted to me. Whatever's left, I'll probably hang onto forever."

Maybe the protectiveness is there because she's seen firsthand how priceless the slightest scrap of paper can be to a family who has lost everything.

At one point the site had a posting for a bundle of canceled checks, dating back for years. Bullion remembers thinking, "Who is going to want canceled checks?"

It turned out that one family very much wanted them. Bullion later found out the checks had belonged to a man who perished in the storm.

"For his family -- his signature was all they had left of him," Bullion explained. "Just having that signature back ... it meant the world. So you just never know."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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