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'Group of angels'

Shreds of a tattered blue tarp are fluttering around a lawn in Melbourne.

BY HEATHER MOYER | MELBOURNE, Fla. | November 7, 2005

"We're fortunate that we've never had to work too hard to find a group of volunteers."

—David Dingley

Shreds of a tattered blue tarp are fluttering around a lawn in Melbourne. Up on the roof four volunteers are ripping off old shingles to help one single mother get a new roof on her home.

The four young men are in Melbourne with the help of Mennonite Disaster Service and Christian Public Service to do a four to six month stint of disaster relief work in an area slammed by hurricanes Jeanne and Frances in the fall of 2004. That might seem like a long time, but being away from their own homes elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada is not a big deal to them.

"This is just us sharing God's love," said Jason Reimer, a volunteer from Oklahoma. All chimed in to say that the work has been 'great' so far and that they will do whatever other work the Brevard County Long Term Recovery Coalition (BCLTRC) puts in front of them.

BCLTRC is using volunteers all over the coastal county for residents still recovering from Jeanne and Frances. David Dingley, the coalition's executive director, said they have 65 open cases at this point and that at least 90% of them are home repair-related. BCLTRC still receives several referrals each week from county officials who get assistance phone calls, added Dingley, and the coalition itself is also still pursuing the residents who have not yet come forward for help. He noted that the coalition serves low income families, the elderly and anyone else who may fall through the cracks.

The coalition has provided many types of assistance to residents. Some need help getting a new roof, others need rent or utility payment assistance and still others just asked for advice on working with the insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Made up of faith-based organizations, community agencies and representatives from Brevard County government, Dingley said the coalition is frequently making referrals to the organization that can best help a resident in need.

"All the agencies bring different skills and services to the table," he explained.

For Dingley, the impressive part of the recovery journey since the hurricanes hit last fall is just how involved the community itself has become in getting life back to normal.

"We've been very successful when putting out the call for volunteers as many local businesses, groups and individuals show up to help," he said. "We're fortunate that we've never had to work too hard to find a group of volunteers."

That local generosity inspires ownership in the community, he added, something that is crucial to making sure the recovery succeeds. Businesses have already stepped in to lend their assistance. One building supplier agreed to sell shingles and other roofing materials to the coalition at a discounted rate. Another business is donating the office space the coalition uses.

Dingley said the BCLTRC members have learned an immense amount about disaster recovery since they banded together last year. The knowledge made them better prepared when Hurricane Wilma lashed the area almost two weeks ago. While damage assessments are still underway, so far no serious damage has been found on the homes BCLTRC helped repair in the past year.

Yet Dingley said he knows that does not mean others went untouched by Wilma's strong winds and high storm surge.

"With Wilma, that last band of her that hit us included tornadoes and high winds," he explained.

While better prepared to handle hurricanes now, Dingley said he knows what the Gulf Coast is dealing with now after Katrina in trying to organize a recovery.

"We went through that," he said. "The first few weeks you clean up all the debris and some things start to look good again. But then it hits you - we're going to have to repair all these homes. Sure the debris is cleaned up, but all these homes were flooded."

The entire process is stressful and the members of BCLTRC have been monitoring their clients for stress. Many of the clients are elderly and did not step forward at first for help because the situation was too overwhelming and stressful. Hurricane fatigue is setting in amongst the county's residents, and Dingley said BCLTRC is trying to bring them hope by helping fix their homes.

Back at the Melbourne home where volunteers were removing the roof, BCLTRC Construction Coordinator Michael Dahl said the residents they help have all been through so much since last year. "Seeing what they're going through, there is some real desperation," said Dahl. "It's very stressful for them."

But Dahl sees the difference in the families' faces once his volunteers finish up. "Families are so appreciative and many try to find some way to give back to us," he said, pausing to point at the crew on the roof. "One lady called those guys up there a group of angels."

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