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Volunteers reach out in FL

Volunteers hit the streets this week in south-central Florida's Highlands County.

BY HEATHER MOYER | SEBRING, Fla. | February 9, 2005

"Roofs are a major need right now."

—Ryan Haynes

Volunteers hit the streets this week in south-central Florida's Highlands County, reaching out to hurricane-stricken families.

"This is the area where three storms crossed over," explained Peggy Garcia of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. And with devastation from hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, recovery will be long and challenging.

More than 18,000 families across the county have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Highlands Emergency Recovery Operation (HERO), a long-term recovery committee, formed in the wake of the storms. HERO comprises both faith-based and community-based groups.

"We've got 48,000 dwellings in this county, and we're focusing on the economically depressed areas," said Ryan Haynes, HERO's project manager, who noted that HERO hopes to find families who need help but have not asked.

HERO leaders are trying to recruit additional volunteers who can canvass communities and identify unmet needs.

Many families have qualified for federal aid, yet are still responsible for multiple insurance deductibles, said the Rev. Betty Kniss, assistant pastor at Sebring's First United Methodist Church. "Many people will not be able to afford to pay them all," said Kniss, who is on HERO's board.

More churches and agencies are joining the recovery team. So far, said Haynes, the coalition of involved groups includes Habitat for Humanity, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Church World Service, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), The Salvation Army, American Red Cross, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and numerous other area churches and county agencies.

HERO also has one case manager and six caseworkers. An upcoming case management training day will further educate this team, added Haynes. Garcia noted that the training is also meant to bring in other volunteers to assist in HERO's recovery casework. "We're already getting calls from all over from people interested in attending," she said.

The case management training will be held Feb. 18 at Sebring's First United Methodist Church.

The recovery team has also been helping replace and repair damaged roofs. So far, 30 have been completed with the help of government grant money and contractors, and volunteer groups finished six more. There are still many more to do, said Haynes.

"Roofs are a major need right now," explained Haynes. "There is also a need for gas money (for transportation), furniture and appliances.

"This organization is still very much in its developmental stage, so we're seeking grants, donations and volunteers."

New Hope, a social service agency that provides home and community care services for the county's elderly population, recently joined HERO. New Hope, with support from a disaster recovery grant, will focus on home repairs for the elderly. "We'll also be doing home assessments for seniors," said Laurie Murphy, New Hope disaster relief coordinator and HERO board member.

Many senior citizens are coping well but may also be confused about the process, said Murphy. "This is all very stressful for them, but they're taking it in stride." She added that New Hope was also proactive after the hurricanes by calling all clients to warn them of potential recovery fraud and to teach them how to recognize a scam.

For children, HERO is helping bring LDR's Camp Noah program to town this summer. Kniss said they hope to run the camp, which helps children work through their feelings about disasters, at six sites around the county. "We're reaching out to the churches and ministerial associations to get more churches involved," she explained. "It's important because the next hurricane season will bring more stress - especially for the children."

Overall, HERO's participating agencies are proud to work together in the recovery. All agreed that being unified helps the county more.

"It's important to make sure we don't duplicate our efforts - that's what's so great about HERO," said Murphy.

Kniss agreed. "HERO is the best thing now to help this county totally recover."

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