Ella Riley wanted to cry.
The Columbia High senior looked on in disbelief as she and her family drove through the tornado-ravaged town Mayfield, Kentucky, on Christmas Eve.
"It was a heartbreaking feeling," Riley said. "No tears, it was worse. Just sadness."
The scene was one Riley will never forget.
"Every house on one street was totally destroyed," she said. "Then, the next street would be fine — like nothing happened."
The EF-4 twister Dec. 10 caused 77 deaths and 515 injuries in addition to more than 5 billion dollars in damage.
Riley's father has family in the western Kentucky town. Luckily, the group came out of storm unscathed.
But that didn't stop Riley, her brother Noah and parents Tiffany and Michael from stepping in to try to make a difference.
The Rileys, through their church group, adopted a family in need and drove down to deliver a car load of supplies, clothing and presents. Neighbors in and around Columbia also donated gift cards.
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That humanitarian mission was life altering for Ella, who was brought up to think of others first.
This was not the first time Ella came to assist others in their time of need. She regularly hands out goodie bags to homeless or downtrodden people at stoplights during trips across the river to the St. Louis area.
But this was different. The horrific scenes of disaster were hard to take.
"Being a teenager, you are kind of self-absorbed," Ella said. "Everything seems to revolve around you. Then you see something like this and it breaks your heart. It made me want to be more giving."
The family the Rileys adopted was a couple in their late 20s with two kids, a boy and girl ages 8 and 7.
One of the main reasons behind the kind act was to make sure the children had as normal a Christmas as possible. The Rileys wrapped toys such as nerf guns and water pistols. The Mayfield family met the Rileys at a nearby church so their children wouldn't see the exchange.
"How do you explain to a child that Santa was going to come but he can't because a tornado came?" Tiffany said. "We wanted to make sure it was a normal Christmas, at least for the kids."
Added Ella, "The mother was emotional and crying, but not for herself. It was about her children. She couldn't believe that someone she didn't know would do all this. That's what made the whole thing so special."
Ella and Tiffany were front and center during the entire operation.
Yet this was not the first time Ella had made the difference in the lives of strangers. She does it on a regular basis as the point person of a group from her church, St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Columbia.
And she does so with little or no fanfare.
"Very few people know about the things she does," said Sydney Sanderson, Ella's friend and a fellow Columbia senior softball player. "It's not a, 'Look at me and all the great things I'm doing’ type of deal. Even I don't know the specifics. She keeps it to herself. She does it because she believes in her heart it's the right thing to do."
Sanderson said Riley's kindness is on display daily.
"We'll be walking down the hall and she'll see someone standing there that no one is talking to and looks lonely," Sanderson said. "She just walks right up and starts a conversation with them. Before you now it, they're both friends."
Riley's generosity makes her a perfect softball teammate. Normally a first baseman, she volunteered to move to the catching position last season because of an injury to the regular backstop. The switch was a difficult one, but she wanted to take on the responsibility for the sake of the team.
Now, Riley is a better-than-average defensive catcher and is hitting .325 for the Eagles.
"Being a catcher is hard and starting at this level is even harder," Columbia softball coach Bri Weilbacher said. "She's done something for the team that a lot girls wouldn't try."
Riley welcomed the challenge.
"It's super fun, it's challenging," Riley said. "There’s a lot more to it than just playing first base. There was a big learning curve."
Riley, who is also on the golf team, began playing softball at an early age on a local tee-ball team. Although she possesses the ability to play in college, she is choosing the academic route and will be attending the University of Arkansas to major in the medical field.
Sporting a 4.18 grade point average, Riley is in the top of 10 of her graduating class.
For now, she is enjoying her final softball campaign. The Eagles enter postseason play with high hopes.
"There's no telling how much we can accomplish or how far we can go," Riley said.
No mater the direction life takes her, Riley will always remember the Christmas Eve trip to Kentucky and the things she learned about herself along the way.
"It was a wakeup call," Riley said. "It just shows how anyone can make a difference if they really want to."