Roadside care appreciated in FL

Follow Florida's Route 17 south from Arcadia, and you'll see a sign for free food at a severely damaged service station near the Ft. Ogden area.

BY HEATHER MOYER | ROUTE 17, Fla. | August 18, 2004



"She finally drove up to our tent because she said she could see our few flashlights and candles through the darkness."

—Jonnie Flewelling


Follow Florida's Route 17 south from Arcadia, and you'll see a sign for free food at a severely damaged service station near the Ft. Ogden area.

Next to the bent roof of the station sits quite the setup. A large barbecue grill and a long table full of hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, and bottled water greets everyone who stops by, all of whom need - and appreciate - the help. Also given out are warm smiles and encouragement.

The friendly folks running the food tent are from the Family Worship Center in Indiantown, Fla., a small town some 70 miles west of Route 17 on the other side of Lake Okeechobee. The worship center is a non-denominational community church.

What makes a group from the other side of Florida want to help?

"The Lord called us to do this," said a smiling Jonnie Flewelling, member of the Family Worship Center. "We come from a church of people who care."

Help from local groups such as these are valued in Florida, but responders, on Wednesday, still emphasized that volunteers from both in state and out-of-state should be sure they confirm a specific need in Florida before they travel to damaged areas, and that they should be affiliated with a specific responding group.

The Family Worship Center team spent the two previous nights in central Florida's Lake Placid, where they fed over 1,600 people. Flewelling said since they set up the food stand Tuesday morning along Route 17, they'd already served hundreds of people. She added that they also received encouragement from local officials.

"This one local administrator stopped by and told us to stay here because this area is still without basic services," said Flewelling. She said he also was grateful for their presence, since many nearby residents had complained that their neighborhood was being forgotten.

The damage is not at all hidden in this neighborhood. The whole service station is bustling with activity as employees are trying to fix the convenience store roof. The wind blows along the residential streets, shaking what's left of trees and rustling blue tarps hung over roofs to keep the rain out. Most trees are split where huge limbs have been ripped away. Home after home has major roof damage and blown out windows. Along Route 17, power line poles are snapped in half like twigs, their top halves lying in the flooded roadside ditch.

One neighbor who stopped by the tent Tuesday afternoon shared his story with Flewelling. "Our whole house blew down," he said shaking his head. "We're staying with my mother, but she lost all the windows in her house."

Flewelling said she'd heard many stories like that since they started their mission. In Lake Placid, she said they met an elderly woman and her husband who had been evacuated. The two were driving around aimlessly, unable to find anyone who could help because the entire area was in complete darkness due to power outages.

"She finally drove up to our tent because she said she could see our few flashlights and candles through the darkness," said Flewelling. "She said, 'Here I was praying that we would be able to find someone, and then the Lord showed me your light!' It was really amazing."

The Family Worship Center team was able to get the woman the help she needed, including some gas so that she and her husband could head out later to get some important medications for her husband.

Everywhere the church shows up to help, people stop by and give them donations of food and water. "People really want to give when they have the opportunity," explained Flewelling.

She and the volunteers remain concerned about the nearby residents. Many residents said they tried calling the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) every chance they got, but the line was always busy. And when your only way to call is from a payphone somewhere, getting help is all the more challenging.

Yet the Family Worship Center volunteers are in it as long as they're needed, said Flewelling. "God said 'get up and go' and we're here," she said, laughing. "As long as he tells us to stay, we'll stay."


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