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Relief reaches those in need

Churches have been main distribution points for relief supplies in Florida, providing not only food and water but comfort for the spirit.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PUNTA GORDA, Fla. | August 19, 2004

"It's great to see people come together like this."

—David Cather

Churches have been main distribution points for relief supplies in Florida, providing not only food and water but comfort for the spirit.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church in Punta Gorda is busy with activity as Adventist Community Services (ACS) prepares its Punta Gorda command post. Volunteers unloaded pallets of food from a truck Thursday afternoon, as ACS Command Post Operator David Cather looked on.

And the building did not escape Hurricane Charley's wrath. Part of the roof was damaged, as was the front of the building.

Nevertheless, "we're making this our main base of distribution here in Punta Gorda," said Cather. ACS is also operating a separate food trailer just down the road in the parking lot of a grocery store. That trailer has served hundreds of meals since they arrived last weekend. "We want the trailer and church to be our dual response," said Cather.

Once the command post at the church is finished Friday, meals will also be available there. The post will be open for affected residents to pick up needed supplies like food, toiletries, and other supplies. In addition, ACS hopes to get a team of volunteers together that will go out into the neighborhood to help repair homes and cleanup debris.

The homes around the Punta Gorda Seventh Day Adventist Church suffered significant damage. Next door, gaping holes are visible in the siding of one home. Across the street, a fallen tree is smashed into the corner of another home. The residents Cather has spoken with are still in shock and often times just need someone to listen. "So we're here to listen, too," he said.

Despite the tremendous damage, Cather said many residents have told him they have no plan to move. "Oh, they're digging in," he laughed. That resilience is also apparent in the volunteers helping ACS. Several youth groups have been persistent helping hands, handing out food at the trailer down the road. Many other groups are lining up to volunteer with ACS now, too. "It's great to see people come together like this," Cather said.

Several blocks away from the Punta Gorda Seventh Day Adventist Church is First United Methodist Church (First UMC) of Punta Gorda. Also just slightly damaged by Charley, the building is serving as another donations and meal center. As residents stop by to pick up water and dinner, volunteers scurry about moving boxes of food and handing out meals.

"Things are chaotic, but we're nearing order," laughed Rev. John Bryant, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church. "People keep asking me what I need, and I'll tell them. We need a freezer truck for ice. I'd like to have several port-o-potties all around this neighborhood since we lack basic services. And then we need money."

Bryant said his church is targeting the hardest-hit mobile home parks and public housing projects. "These are the folks that need the help," he explained.

Many of the volunteers running about First UMC suffered home damages as well. The church served as a shelter the night Charley struck, and Bryant said he will never forget that night. "This whole building shook," he said, motioning about the large fellowship hall. "My wife and I watched two tornadoes come down the street by our church. It hit the homes and just sucked the trees straight up into the air. It was the most horrifying thing I've ever seen."

First UMC member Jack Edwards spent the night at the church, too. When he went back to check on his home, the entire back wall had fallen in. He's still living there, though, in the meantime. Many of his neighbors suffered serious damage. Over 25 nearby homes were completely destroyed. Edwards said he'd seen emotions change as the week went by.

"I think many of us are out of the shock phase now," Edwards explained. "Many of us are angry that all this happened to us in the first place. You just can't believe it happened to you. It's something you never expect."

The other volunteers around First UMC are from across the state. J.R.Thompson came in from Naples to offer his services. Handing out cold water from beneath a canopy in front of the church, Thompson noted that this whole experience was a first for him. "I've never seen anything like this before," he said. And Thompson isn't helping out at First UMC because he's a Methodist, or even because he considers himself religious. "I came up to help and just drove around until I found a place," he laughed, adding that he even brought his chainsaw and is ready to use that whenever it's needed.

Bryant said one's religious background makes no difference in these situations, just their willingness to help. He's been more than impressed by the generosity of everyone around Punta Gorda. "This is Christianity in action," he said. "You don't have to be a church member or religious to be Godly."

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