ALBANY, GA (WALB) - An Albany man has just returned from the nation's capital after accepting the 2018 Phoenix Award for Disaster Recovery by a Volunteer.
Given by the United States Small Business Administration to a small business owner, Tom Gieryic's Automotive Repair Shop became a central station for volunteers helping clear thousands of downed trees.
But, Gieryic is the reluctant face of what's now known as the Albany Chain Gang. Reluctant because he said he is just one link in a very long chain that helped the community recover.
"Volunteers stayed away from all of the publicity. They didn't want to have anything to do with it. Where in my shoes, it was imperative that we had it because we needed the funding," explained Gieryic.
Funding for chainsaws necessary to cut tens of thousands of downed trees. Funding to rent large equipment to move tons of debris. And funding to pay for gasoline, oil and maintenance.
"Actually if you count them, we had five storms. We had the two major ones in January, the small one in March, we had the one in April that tore up Stuart Avenue (in Albany), and then we had some damage from Irma later on the in the year. So, it was a lot of hits, back-to-back," said Gieryic.
Hits that the Albany Chain Gang responded to with dozens of unpaid volunteers.
And that's why Gieryic was very reluctant to accept an award with just his name on it.
"The Small Business Administration just gives awards to Small Business Owners. It's an individual award. She said 'What do we have to do to make it happen?' I said I want something on that award to say Albany Chain Gangs," Gieryic explained.
And he got his wish.
Albany Chain Gang is etched permanently on the national recognition. Although he requested Chain Gang be cited in the plural, as Chain Gangs, for the many individuals and groups that hit the streets in Lee, Worth, Dougherty and surrounding counties to help cut and remove trees throughout 2017.
An award for Southwest Georgia's many volunteers, whose efforts did not go unnoticed.
"What made me happiest was right after the January 2, 2017 storm, when a 27-year Red Cross volunteer said, 'I've been to lots of disasters and I've never seen so many people come together like they have in Albany.' That was powerful, coming from him," recalled Gieryic.
Gieryic said he is in the beginning stages of setting up a non-profit, joining together with other disaster groups birthed in the wake of 2017's storms and tornadoes.
As for all of those chainsaws, there are about 15 in storage, several were stolen and the rest are in the hands of the volunteers who donated at least two weeks of labor. People who are on call, ready to respond after the next storm.