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Volunteers pool skills

Morris Burroughs is bustling about the First Baptist Church in Lake Wales, Florida.

BY HEATHER MOYER | LAKE WALES, Fla. | August 22, 2004

"A lot of folks around here live paycheck-to-paycheck."

—Michelle Stone

Morris Burroughs is bustling about the First Baptist Church in Lake Wales, Florida. A "Blue Hat" for his Alabama unit of Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief, Burroughs is in charge of helping feed the army of Baptist disaster relief workers stationed at the church.

Numerous Southern Baptist work crews descended upon this small central Florida town shortly after Hurricane Charley ripped through. "We've got chainsaw crews, construction crews, and the feeding units," said Burroughs, standing beneath a canopy in the church parking lot. Around him are all the various disaster relief trailers of the crews that came in from Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi. For dinner last night, over 5,000 meals were served - and they're just feeding the work crews right now.

That afternoon as Burroughs and crew prepared for dinner, not many members of the crews are around. Most had just left again to continue their work in the severely damaged neighborhoods. The First Baptist Church did not escape damage either. Knocked over by high winds, the steeple now hangs precariously from its perch above the sanctuary. Part of the sanctuary roof collapsed, drenching most everything within. Out front, the church even sign lost a few letters, and its marquee was blown from its stand.

A few streets over is the historic downtown section of Lake Wales. Business owners and residents are out sweeping, nailing plywood over shattered windows, and pulling waterlogged carpet and furniture out from various storefronts.

At the Lake Wales Family Care Center, employees are trying to go about their normal jobs as workers rip out carpet from part of their office. Charley ripped away part of the building's roof, and now the smell of mildew from the wet carpet and furniture permeates the office. Fans line the hallways, an attempt to help dry the carpet.

The Lake Wales Family Care Center is a non-denominational Christian social services agency with missions ranging from providing transitional housing for homeless families to a meals-on-wheels program.

Michelle Stone, family services director for the agency, said they are designed to help in emergency situations, but not necessarily in disasters.

"We're being supportive of the agencies that are trained for this - such as the American Red Cross and city and county officials," she explained. "We're at least trying to help them get volunteers."

Yet the Family Care Center may be more prepared than Stone realizes. Stone said they've sent out canvassing teams to outlying neighborhoods to check in on the elderly, low-income families, and shut-ins. Some volunteers are also helping to secure roofs for these families so they can at least stay dry in the meantime. Stone said her agency already runs programs each summer where work groups come in to help repair low-income homes, so having that pool of trained volunteers has been an asset thus far.

"Many here don't have the funds for repairs," she said. "A lot of folks around here live paycheck-to-paycheck. People are worried about the economic situation. Some can't work because their businesses aren't open.

And there are also many migrant workers around here."

Hard feelings are setting in for the residents of the Lake Wales area.

Stone said many are frustrated and some are still in shock. The Saturday morning after Hurricane Charley struck, Stone said at first many came out and thought that because they had the whole weekend to clean up, that things would be back to normal on Monday. "It's certainly not like that, though," she said. "Folks in central Florida don't think much about hurricanes."

But she's noticed the positives since then. Stone added that people are really banding together now, and all the help that's poured in from all over is more than generous.

"We're so thankful that people care so much," she said with tears in her eyes.

Earlier in the day, residents and disaster relief workers from around the central Florida region had gathered at Hope Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven to discuss recovery needs. Many were there representing churches that wanted to help. Others voiced needs from their own communities.

One woman spoke of the economic issues in her area. "The other day a woman came to me and told me that her boss gave her the ultimatum of either you come to work or you lose your job," she said. "She lived far away from any city, and had to make the decision of keeping her job by leaving her young children home alone, or losing it by staying with them."

Jody Hill, director of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disasters (FIND) was at the meeting and said many don't realize the hurricane hit more than just Punta Gorda and southwest Florida. "This storm went all the way to Daytona Beach, don't forget that," she said.

Meeting attendees also discussed how to reach more rural areas and areas with low-income populations that have been ignored so far. Others worried about some needs falling through the cracks. "A woman I know has a special needs child who had to be evacuated to a facility far from her home," said one resident. "Yet she also has kids at home, so she's having to drive between the two all the time. She needs help with gas money."

Fortunately, said a Presbyterian official, many volunteer groups were ready to come in. She's just been telling them to be patient while they try to match volunteers up with the best areas. But others are already in affected areas and doing significant work.

One group that came from out of town is the Christian Contractors Association (CCA). A network of licensed and experienced contractors of all trades, CCA moved into Lake Wales to lend a hand as soon as they could. Not only does CCA help repair and rebuild damaged homes, but they also hand out their construction supplies to other agencies in town doing similar work.

"If it comes to us and someone else needs it, it still goes to the people," said a tired but smiling CCA Director Scott Jager.

Standing in a parking lot loaned to them by the city, Jager said they have 100 volunteers out in the Lake Wales community helping so far. "It's a major coordination effort," he laughed. He gave an example of the coordination challenges - and of the local community's own generosity.

"We ran out of ladders today, but the Lake Wales Fire Department helped us put out the call and round up more," he said, standing by the pile of newly acquired ladders. "The local Home Depot also gave us some."

CCA's volunteers are focusing on helping widows, the elderly, low-income families, and those with no insurance, said Jager. They're doing everything from securing roofs to sawing downed trees and debris. 'And we've got more volunteers calling in to help," he said.

The talent of CCA workers is also coming in handy at their "hotel." Jager and the CCA volunteers are staying at an old city gymnasium that has a roof Jager says is "leaking like a sieve." He said they're doing what they can to get that fixed so they at least have a dryer place to sleep.

And even the CCA volunteers have volunteer help. A food trailer from the Palmetto, Fla., Church on the Rock is set up to feed the crew everyday.

Sitting under a tent across from several CCA vans, the Church on the Rock team is relaxing for bit until the next mealtime arrives.

"The concept of this was (the CCA volunteers) need to be able to eat quickly and go back to work instead of waiting in line," said Andy Toombs, church member and meal preparer. "We'll take care of whatever we're need to do. That's what kind of church we are."

Then Toombs promptly put the attention back where he thought it should be. "But these guys," he said, pointing at the CCA crews. "These guys are awesome."

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