tornado, mayfield, kentucky, christmas

Shawn Triplett is raising money to make sure kids impacted by the tornado in Mayfield, KY have the best Christmas they can.

When a historic tornado ripped through the town of Mayfield, Kentucky earlier this month, it left utter devastation in its wake. Drone footage of the damage reveals an apocalyptic scene, with much of the town completely flattened. It's a level of destruction that's difficult to fathom, much less to live through.

The tornadoes hit eight states, with most of the damage in Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. (The National Weather Service has confirmed 66 tornadoes from December 10 and 11, including the Mayfield tornado, which alone spanned a path of 165 miles.) Thankfully, people of goodwill have rallied around those in locations along the path of the tornadoes.

One of those people of goodwill is a retired U.S. Marine named Shawn Triplett. He's from Mayfield himself, but told CNN he was in Chicago when the tornado hit. He's served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and said what he saw in the tornado aftermath was worse than a war zone.

"I was deployed to the Middle East three times and I've never seen anything like it," he said. "It's devastating to witness and it humbles you into being thankful for all that you have... "

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Triplett was volunteering at a local shelter after the tornado when he overheard a heartbreaking conversation between a mother and child.

"I saw a child, no older than 6 years old, crying in his mother's arms," he told PEOPLE. "She was crying too, but you could tell she was doing her best to look strong. The boy told his mom, 'I've lost my Christmas.' It was at that moment that I broke down and had to walk outside."

"It gut-punched me and hurt," he continued. "I felt actual pain at that moment. I tried to sleep that night but I couldn't. The pain in that kid's voice broke me in half. I had to do something about it."

The devastation in Mayfield, Kentucky is difficult to fathom.

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That "something" started off as a modest initiative to raise money to buy some dozen or so kids some Christmas presents. He asked friends and family to donate to help kids who lost everything.

"I was going to give them back their Christmas. That was my mission," he told PEOPLE. "There was so much support in the community for water, generators and food, but nobody was thinking about the kids. At least, not in the way it should be, so close to Christmas."

Triplett took $2000 he'd collected and filled carts full of toys at Walmart. The next day, after more money from friends and strangers came in, he went back for more.

"It just really blew my mind," he told CNN. "The support has just been astronomical."

But it got even better than that.

Triplett started a GoFundMe with an initial goal of $10,000, but when it started being shared on social media, the amount skyrocketed. As of the writing of this article, the total is up to more than $88,000.

"Our original goal was to support 30 kids, but because of the GoFundMe, we're able to reach hundreds of kids — and that's my biggest joy, being able to give these kids so much," he adds. "The support has been humbling and overwhelmingly incredible."

"I’m going to Walmart daily to buy truck loads of toys," Triplett wrote in the GoFundMe page description. "Walmart has also agreed to provide a 25% discount on all purchases for us. We’re then going to gift wrap the toys, I’ll dress up as Santa, and we’ll hand the toys out to kids most in need. So far we’ve raised $10,000 independently but with the help of this go fund me we’ll raise even more. I’d like to point out that 100% of all funds raised will be used in the purchase of toys. There is no overhead costs and all extra costs will be funded by me personally."

Thanks to Triplett and generous donors from around the world, the kids of Mayfield will have a merrier Christmas than they probably imagined possible a week ago. What a beautiful example of what a person can do when they put their heart and energy into helping others and rally other people of goodwill to join them.

This article originally appeared on 09.06.17

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