Jesus was here: Churches lend hands for CareFest

Jan Smith from Cork UMC, Plant City, adds flower pots to the debris cleaned from an elderly homeowner's yard as part of CareFest 2015. Photo by Susan Green.

Editor's note: Click here to see a photo gallery from CareFest 2015.

Jan Smith could have focused on the grime, the exertion or the Florida heat still lingering in September.

Instead she pictured the future satisfaction of someone in need, as she and 10 other volunteers from Cork UMC near Plant City weeded and mowed and hauled away years of discarded household items from the home of an 87-year-old woman.

“I think this will make her feel better when she drives up to her yard,” Smith said. The team also rewired a clothes dryer to make it usable again.

Darlene Compton in front of her home with volunteers working behind her
Darlene Compton, a widow with health problems, is nearly brought to tears as CareFest volunteers from Calvary Lutheran and Christ Community churches work to spruce up her yard and home in Wimauma. Photo by D'Ann Lawrence White.

The volunteers from Cork were among 4,000 workers from faith communities and civic groups across a four-county region who turned out Saturday for CareFest, an annual event organized by Somebody Cares Tampa Bay. The effort matches willing hands with home repair projects for people who need help but can’t afford to pay for it.

A few miles away from Cork’s project, homeowner Rosemary Brown couldn’t contain her glee as she supervised a team from Knights Baptist Church who swarmed over her home by the train tracks.

“Deep Six,” she called over and over, as volunteers held up worn items for her inspection and a ruling on whether to toss or retain.

From her wheelchair perched at the railroad crossing, Brown explained that she had lived there 30 years and planted every tree that now towered over the house. At first she was able to keep up the yard without help, but time and her disability had caused maintenance to get away from her.

“I’m hollering Deep Six a lot today,” Brown said. “I’m happy for it because God knows I couldn’t do all this. ... I was praying somebody would come and help me.”

Volunteers from the Knights church also built a new ramp from the street to her front door and put up a wooden fence along the tracks to buffer the home from noise.

Three Cub Scouts from South Shore UMC show off debris they collected during CareFest
Three Scouts from South Shore UMC, Riverview, show off the debris they collected as part of the volunteer CareFest event. Photo from Stephanie Flatt.

Across the county, Darlene Compton, 65, of Wimauma grew teary-eyed as she watched CareFest volunteers from Calvary Lutheran and Christ Community churches in Apollo Beach tackle a yard she hasn't been able to keep up. Compton lost her husband to cancer a year ago and has battled the disease herself twice. Recently, doctors told her she has a brain aneurysm.

“This is amazing,” she said. “I’ve always been very independent and it’s real hard for me to ask for help. But these volunteers have been so kind and considerate. I’m just so grateful.”

Calvary and Christ Community were part of the southern Hillsborough CareFest mission coordinated by Stephanie and Daryl Flatt of South Shore UMC, Riverview. In all, nine South Hillsborough churches sent 130 volunteers to the event Saturday, including South Shore with 20 volunteers and Sun City Center UMC with 40. United Methodists adopted a total of 10 projects.

Both churches also provided $1,000 each toward materials, with South Shore’s donation coming from the Matthew Knight Foundation. South Shore helped fund CareFest projects adopted by youth groups at Calvary Lutheran and Christ Community churches as well.

Twelve churches were joined by civic organizations to provide 150 volunteers in Plant City, said Norm Blanton, Hillsborough County CareFest coordinator. 

Kathy Bernard, administrator for Clearwater-based Somebody Cares, said volunteers tackled more than 325 projects across Tampa Bay.

Other churches, including Van Dyke Church, a United Methodist congregation near Tampa, have signed up to carry out a CareFest mission on a different weekend.

Homeowner Rosemary Brown watches volunteers work at her house from her wheelchair
Rosemary Brown, left, surveys the work of Knights Baptist Church volunteers at her Plant City home. She relies on a wheelchair and says CareFest was an answer to her prayers. Photo by Susan Green.  

Projects tackled Saturday ranged from painting, yard work and basic home repairs to more daunting tasks. 

Jordan Palzer, Calvary’s youth pastor, said his heart sank when he visited Compton’s home in Wimauma before the cleanup. 

“When I did the site visit, the grass was up to my waist,” Palzer recalled. “I realized we wouldn’t be able to cut it with hand mowers, so I posted a message on Facebook asking for a lawn maintenance company for help.”

Will Fike of Core Property Solutions responded with a price of $80. Palzer jumped at the offer. 

Fike mowed Compton’s lawn the day before Palzer’s team of 20 volunteers and others from Christ Community were scheduled to arrive. 

“When he found out we were doing this for CareFest, he didn’t charge anything,” said Palzer. Fike’s contribution allowed volunteers to focus on cutting back overgrown bushes, trimming trees, painting the house and shed and cleaning out yard debris.

“That’s what CareFest is all about: people helping people in any way they can,” Palzer said.

Back in Plant City, Robin Hyrons, mission coordinator for Knights Baptist, said her church team will return in January to paint Brown’s new ramp, which needed time for the pressure treatment to season.

“We’re a small church … but we have a mission every month,” Hyrons said. “They [church members] have a love for God and obedience. This is a great opportunity to not only help but stay connected with people. 

“That’s what it’s about: relationships.”

Sally Watt, missions coordinator for Cork UMC, said she read about CareFest in a local newspaper and attended a planning meeting. With the support of the congregation, she chose a project she thought volunteers could handle.

Alicia Barbarini and Tom McDonough from Cork UMC pull debris from a firepit
Alicia Barbarini and Tom McDonough from Cork UMC, Plant City, dispose of debris they pulled from a makeshift fire pit as part of a cleanup mission during CareFest 2015. Photo by Susan Green.

The homeowner moved into the house in 1966 and lived there for many years before moving to Mississippi to be near relatives, leaving her Plant City home in the care of renters. But a death in the family led her to return to Plant City, where she found the house in serious disrepair, and most of her relatives are disabled or otherwise unable to give her the help she needs.

“Mama borrowed against her life insurance to get the taxes paid,” said the homeowner’s daughter, who requested that she and her mother not be named in this report. 

Watt said she and her husband recently relocated to Plant City from Newport, North Carolina, where they have long been active in mission work.

“I think it’s wonderful that our church becomes known as a mission church,” Watt said.

Volunteers of all ages participated in CareFest. In Wimauma, youth volunteers were a big part of the turnout. Ashleigh Petersen, 17, of Christ Community arrived early with her 12-year-old brother, John. 

“I just love helping people,” she said. “It makes me feel good to know I’ve made someone happy.”

Palzer said when he put out the call for volunteers at Calvary, the church’s youth were the first to step up. 

“The Bible talks about helping orphans and widows in distress,” he said. “It’s great that these kids have taken that lesson to heart and given up their Saturday.”

Volunteering was a family affair for Calvary church members Allison and John Weston and their two children, Daniel, 9, and Anna, 11. 

“I think it’s awesome to be able to help those in need and share God’s love,” said Allison Weston. 

“It’s what God would want me to do,” said Hunter Stroud, 14, from Calvary. “I could be home watching TV, but Jesus wants us to watch out for our neighbors. If my grandmother was in the same situation, I’d want someone to help.”

Flatt, who with her husband coordinates disaster recovery missions for South Shore, was happy with the turnout.

“It was remarkable.  I am amazed about how totally giving the community was.  It was a huge group effort,” she said. “Projects far exceeded the simple yard work and varied depending on the skill level of the volunteers.

“All the glory is given to God as he equipped us in this event.”

– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor. D'Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in the Brandon area.

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