Before hurricanes strike, people gather supplies to help survive the onslaught.

Afterward, they often discover whether they are physically and emotionally equipped to persevere.

Churches do that, too.

When Hurricane Irma was threatening to devastate Southwest Florida in September 2017, members of Englewood United Methodist Church hadn't experienced a major hurricane in more than a decade. Still, they mobilized to help one another.

One year later, they still were helping storm victims recover.

Throughout the experience, the congregation grew in camaraderie and fellowship.

“You meet new people. You learn new skills” and the task “always seems to get done,” said church member Jan Garcia, who helped her husband Al feed volunteers who participated in the church's major renovation of a storm-ravaged LaBelle home.

Church members helped other groups rebuild a double-wide manufactured home in northwest Hendry County. Homeowners Francisco and Norma Arroliga, who live about 75 miles southwest of Englewood, could not return to their storm-ravaged home until early March 2019.

About 20 volunteers from this church of mostly retirees formed three work teams. They participated in single-day and week-long shifts. An electrician in the congregation also made three visits.

Just like family

Francisco Arroliga said the churches and groups that helped rebuild their home were like family.

Several church members gathered in March to discuss the experience. Jan Garcia marveled not at the work done but at the resilience of the couple they were serving.

Garcia says she sat on the porch and watched Norma, who was disabled and planning to have surgery unrelated to the storm. The homeowner was working on the ground, working while sitting on a stump, and raking. She was trying to do all of the work that she could.

“This is their home,” Garcia said emphatically. “It made me think to myself that if I had just lost everything, everything … you find out that it's just stuff. There's a curve to get to where it's just stuff, because in the beginning, you mourn the loss of that stuff. Especially pictures. You're not going to get those back."

"They were working just as hard as we were," EUMC team leader Peter Patrick said of the couple.

The Garcias, retired educators, were among a group of five church members who reflected on the days before, during and after Irma, a natural disaster that taught the church lessons but also provided clear evidence of its service to others.

Connections

As Florida United Methodist Conference Hurricane Irma southwest Florida regional volunteer coordinator, Steve Potter's job is to connect volunteers with Conference cases.

Volunteer coordinators often work with students on spring break or retirees from churches up North. Potter, who has been matching volunteers with construction sites since January of 2018, says the Englewood group made a “pretty significant commitment” in staying on the job through the home being drywalled.

Living in a coastal community means being vigilant before a storm so afterward you can serve others.

"We were probably not prepared,” said Patrick, a retired business owner. “We have since discovered that we need to be better prepared for a hurricane.”

After the storm went through, church members gathered canned goods, paper goods and medical supplies for storm victims in places such as Moore Haven and Everglades City. A year later they agreed to rebuild a home that suffered extensive water damage. That's how they met the Arroligas.

It was one of many Irma-ravaged homes the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church agreed to rebuild after consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We kind of adopted that particular job," Patrick said. "It was pretty severely damaged. The roof was torn off and the house was pretty much gutted. They lost everything."

While the Arroligas stayed with their son, the EUMC volunteers bunked at the Riverside Retreat near LaBelle, about 15 miles from the work site.

Al Garcia, who prepared team members' meals during all three trips, participated despite having some health issues. He had wanted to contribute after missing out on Appalachia Service Project training Jan and others had undertaken the previous year in Virginia.

Volunteer Marty Bencsik, a retired electrician, put on his carpentry cap. He,  team member Margie Kennedy, a retired entrepreneur, and others removed all the tile in the floor, tore the sub-floor out, re-braced all the joists and inserted new sub-flooring.

The church and other teams helped install flooring, insulation and a new roof as well did cabinet and drywall work.

Margie Kennedy described her role as that of a worker bee, doing many different tasks, from ripping up floors and digging up mortar to removing saturated insulation.

"It's amazing, with the different levels that people can do, and skills, how it all gets done," she said.

Additionally, EUMC provided new furniture and major appliances.

Days after moving back in their home, Francisco reflected on all of the groups that had helped them.

“I told them, 'This is God at work,' ” he said. “I didn't know that I had so many brothers and sisters. They came in from Washington state and Mississippi, from Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. It's unbelievable. And they did this nice job.”

Vulnerable to storms

Back home in Englewood, the EUMC buildings evaded major storm damage, but these team members agreed that living in the potential path of hurricanes makes them vulnerable.

Patrick said church leaders realized that they needed to be better prepared to take care of themselves – the church structure and the church members as a body – in order to take better care of others in the community.

To that end, some members are being trained as certified disaster responders, to get themselves better organized. The church may partner with All Faiths Food Bank and become a post-disaster food pantry.

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