WASHINGTON, Ill. (CBS) — In the last nine days, residents of downstate Washington have faced challenges they never imagined, in the wake of a devastating tornado.

Now, with the holidays approaching, they’re looking ahead thanks to the kindness of strangers, and the prospect of construction on new homes beginning soon.

The families in Washington were hoping to spend Thanksgiving in their own homes, but hundreds of homes were wiped out by the Nov. 17 twister. In all, more than 1,500 homes were damaged or destroyed by the tornado.

Since then, many churches and other organizations have stepped in to prepare meals from donated food.

“We want them to have hot food. It’s cold outside. It’s very important. We want them to stay healthy,” said Nikki Hudson, the head cook at Crossroads United Methodist Church, which escaped serious damage.

Hudson has helped make more than 20,000 meals since the tornado ripped through the small town, and her main focus now is on feeding more than 1,000 people at the church on Thanksgiving.

Meantime, Washington Mayor Gary Manier said crews could start rebuilding some homes by the end of the week.

“I think as soon as residents start to see some construction begin – some framing done – I think it’s going to give us more hope than we had before, but we have hope,” he said.

Fewer than 10 days after the powerful tornado leveled much of the town, contractors were planning to lay foundations for new homes. First, they were working to clear out debris to help residents rebuild.