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Small church big in response

Near Arcadia, a small church is becoming a big recovery center.

BY HEATHER MOYER | Arcadia, Fla. | August 22, 2004

"Many people come in and just want to talk, so we listen."

—Becky Sommers

Near Arcadia, a small church is becoming a big recovery center.

Hurricane Charley left a wide swath of damage down Route 72 in southwest Florida and, along that road, the Pine Chapel Church has become home to the recovery operation of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). "We've got 200 volunteers out today alone," said Merle Sommers, director of MDS in Florida.

Sommers said MDS is focusing on getting the small church ready for their recovery effort, which will include building several more structures for the agency to operate out of. "We're taking the next few weeks to develop a facility at this church that will serve as our 'r and r' area for volunteers," he said. "Our goal is to have 20 to 30 volunteers working here at a time."

For now, the church's small fellowship hall is busy with activity. Volunteers sort donated food and listen to local residents and church members say what they need help with. Many church members are farmers and need help repairing outbuildings that house animals and equipment.

"There are also a lot of migrant workers in the area," said Sommers' wife Becky. "They're out of work now because there won't be much of a citrus season this year with all the damage to the crops."

MDS is into disaster recovery for the long-term. Often staying in damaged places for years after, they focus on rebuilding homes. Merle said they wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to finish its assessments and assistance distribution before they start that process, though.

Merle said MDS works closely with other faith-based disaster recovery group as well. This time they'll be working with the Methodists, who will provide the casework and then pass on rebuild cases to MDS.

In the immediate future, crisis counseling will start in several weeks. A plan to serve a nightly hot meal for everyone will also begin soon, said Becky, as a chance for folks to be together in fellowship and get away from things for a bit.

According to the Sommers, residents are tired right now. Many are upset because they have no electricity. The heat makes it hard to sleep. The lack of power contributes to that and not being able to take baths or showers. Yet Becky said around the church, most remain in good spirits and work together well.

"Many come in and just want to talk, so we listen," Becky explained. "They just need to tell their story. And we have folks going door-to-door asking what's needed and listening, too."

Issues in Arcadia include lack of housing. "Mobile homes are trashed, apartments are condemned, people don't have anywhere to go," said Merle. Mosquitoes are a concern now as well.

Yet the Sommers are glad that there is no lack of volunteers right now. They said they have teams from around the country ready to come in, and then plenty of others are just stopping by the church as they can. "The big thing in all this is that we hope somewhere, people see Jesus in this," said Becky. "It's a great opportunity for this church to be so visible. People driving up and down the street will see all this activity here."

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