In 1993, Greg Yance was serving a sentence at a prison boot camp program in Greene County, Ill., for a drug conviction. Yance says his life was changed that year — thanks to an experience he had outside of Greene County lines.
Yance, then 23, had been sent with a group of inmates about 130 miles away, to Niota, Ill., in the middle of what would become the Great Flood of 1993. The inmates were dispatched to shore up the levee in Niota, which is along the banks of the Mississippi River, with sandbags.
"I was just happy that we was getting off the compound. When we came to the river the first time, I put my hands in it and put it on my face," he says in a recent StoryCorps conversation with Neoma Farr. Farr, 68, is a local beauty shop owner, and Yance, now 48, met during those sandbagging sessions.
Farr remembered Yance's perseverance.
"I seen how hard you worked, like it was your home that you was trying to save," she says. Farr decided she could help out by feeding the inmates and serving them juice. She became known as "The Orange Drink Lady."
"You guys were so young, and I had children your age," Farr says. "And I thought about if these were my children, how would I want them treated? So, I treated you like you were mine."
Her gesture didn't go unnoticed. "We felt that," he says. "That was why when this town flooded, that crushed us." He felt like he'd let the Niota residents down. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers overflowed that year, causing one of the costliest and most devastating floods in U.S. history.
"I know that when the levee broke you guys were all upset because you didn't think you did your job," Farr says.
"I couldn't look at nobody," Yance says.
Farr, however, knew no one was at fault. "You worked your tails off! We had so much respect for you guys. It wasn't like, 'Well, if they would have worked harder or faster.' We were all in there together."
Yance says that for a long time after his prison release in 1993, he wanted to return to the Niota.
"The flood, it just changed my life," he says. "When we was doing all this stuff, it made us feel like we had a purpose. What I felt when I was sandbagging and helping people, that kind of compassion. I just never been in a situation that, complete strangers helping each other."
He'd been hesitant to go back, fearing it would upset his memory of Niota. "I mean, it's like one of those things I put on a pedestal in my life, so I didn't know if I wanted to come here and mess with that," Yance says. "You know, you got your four-leaf clover and you knock off a leaf and you're like, 'Man, I shouldn't have ever touched it.' "
"But, I'm glad I came."
Back in 1993, Farr says she and her fellow residents didn't get to know Yance and the other inmates or learn their names. "I'm just so excited that I get to meet you as a man," she says. "[Y]our name is Greg. And I'm just happy to meet you."
Produced for Morning Edition by Kelly Moffitt with Grace Pauley.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.