Standing in line at a Hurricane Irma relief goods distribution, Brenda Jennings’ voice shakes when she talks about finding out that her family had lost everything five days after Hurricane Irma hit Immokalee, Florida.
Like many other families, Brenda’s fled ahead of the storm. Afterward, with cell service down, they couldn’t check to see how the house had fared until they physically returned. When they did, there was a red notice taped to their house that read “Condemned.” Wind and rain had done their worst, leaving it in shambles.
“We’re safe, thank God. But we can’t get any of our things,” says Brenda. With so many rental houses damaged, Brenda is scrambling to find a new place to live for the four adults and four children in her family. Fortunately, she could replace some of the lost things at a distribution of personal and household items stocked by World Vision.
Brenda gave her name and told her story to volunteers at Bethel Assemblies of God Church who checked off items she needed from a list of available goods that World Vision had trucked to the church in two semitrailer loads. Volunteers from the church and community helped Brenda find the right sizes and quantities.
A member of the church’s youth group walked with her through the gym where goods were kept to carry the large plastic bag they had loaded with food, towels, T-shirts, a flowered kit bag of women’s toiletries, and other items. When she came to the end of the line, other helpers followed her outside, carrying four sleeping bags and a case of bottled water.
About 350 families — 1,900 individual lives — were touched by the donations and product gifts they received as well as the care and concern of volunteers who served them.
Abby and Pedro Vasquez’s trailer-home is damaged, too, but unlike Brenda’s they can still live in theirs while it’s repaired. For now, they’ve borrowed a generator to power a window air conditioner to cool one room where they, along with baby Evelyn and more family members who need a place to stay, all sleep. Trailers heat up to suffocatingly high temperatures during the day and stay hot through the humid nights.
“We just run the generator at night, but it’s too hot for the baby to sleep without air conditioning. We can’t run a refrigerator, too,” says Abby.
Diapers are a big need for families like Abby’s since the drugstores and grocery stores haven’t opened yet. Other people who had just returned to flooded homes were glad to carry away a bucket of cleaning supplies — brushes, sponges, and gloves, plus heavy-duty cleaning solutions and bleach.
Faith groups move mountains of goods to help
Volunteers carried, counted, sorted, and stacked every item and handed them out with encouragement and hugs — even as they themselves were just as affected by the storm as the neighbors they served, says Pastor Frank Rincon, who ministers to the English-speaking congregation of the church founded by his father, Josue.
“Cell phones weren’t working, so we went to some neighborhoods where there are people we know. We walked around and asked people if they could come to help,” he says.
More than 50 people left off cleaning their own houses and yards, in some cases dedicating most of two days to making life a little less difficult for others. “They came, worked hard, and thanked us for the opportunity to contribute,” Pastor Frank says. The camaraderie of working together seemed to lift everyone’s spirits.
With her elementary school still on a hurricane hiatus, teacher Tiffany Palafox helped to organize volunteers and tackled an elephant-sized stack of boxed diapers that had to be opened, sorted, and marked by size. Tiffany joined the team at the request of Jeannie Rincon, Pastor Frank’s wife, a reading coach at her school.
Manuel Huet, a landscaper for the church, stood at the front door to welcome every person coming in and direct them through the distribution process. He was visibly moved as he watched World Vision disaster responders and local volunteers working together to make the process move smoothly.
“This is good,” he says. “What you (World Vision) have done for us is more than all the things you brought.” Manuel himself has slept on the floor at the church since the storm because there’s still water standing in his trailer.
To reach the most vulnerable people in the Immokalee area through the distribution, Pastor Frank contacted other members of the ministerial association and asked them to invite families they knew to be in particular need. The pastors are a close-knit group who support each other in service to Immokalee’s migrant farmworkers.
Generators help churches’ recovery efforts
As the distribution at Bethel Church was winding down and volunteers began taking down canopies and stacking empty boxes, the World Vision team delivered generators to three churches and ministries for them to use until the power is back on for their soup kitchens, feeding centers, and fresh food storage.
Pastor Miguel Estrada of Mision Peniel serves a hot meal to 750 farmworkers a week during the peak growing season. The hurricane damaged crops, and some workers moved on, but many stayed and are struggling, he says. With the loan of a couple of generators, he plans to serve three hot meals a week.
Guadalupe Catholic Church needs a generator for food storage and to run the database of people receiving social services. Rev. Lori Snell at Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church needs power to get the church’s food pantry open and prepare the 100 hot meals they serve on the street.
Not only are Immokalee’s migrant farm families hardworking people, so are the pastors who serve them.