Her name is Helen (Oct. 13, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Her name is Helen

Oct. 13, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
mwacht@flumc.org     Orlando  {0180}

An e-Review Commentary
By the Rev. Scott Harris**

PINE ISLAND — Her name is Helen. I met her only a couple days after "Charley" struck. Power had been restored to only a small portion of the island, and where she lived it looked as though electricity would be a long time in coming. She resided in a mobile home park in the Bokeelia area where so many people lost everything from the savage winds of the Category 4 storm that pillaged the northern end of Pine Island. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other assessment teams had gone through her park and condemned a number of the homes there. Her home was badly damaged and rendered unsafe, but had not been totally condemned. The American Red Cross told Helen that it would be better for her if she went to the shelter that we had set up at St. John's Episcopal Church. There was air conditioning and water there, and she would be well taken care of by the many compassionate volunteers working there.

Helen is 90 years old. She has been a relatively independent soul for all those years. It seemed that everything she held dear was wrapped up within the four walls of that now damaged and fragile home. She thanked the Red Cross volunteers for their concern, but she was not about to leave her home. The temperature and the humidity began to rise as the afternoon sun beat down on the un-air conditioned dwelling of this frail little woman. To meet Helen is to meet everyone's favorite, sweet grandmother. The thought of her there alone in that home under the physically trying conditions of rising heat and humidity was more than aid workers on the island could bear.

The fire department rescue squad was told about Helen, and members of the squad paid a visit to her to see if they could convince her that she needed to go to the shelter. They looked pretty official in their uniforms, and they lovingly tried to help her understand that it was not good for her to be alone in her damaged home. But Helen would not hear of it. She was steadfast in her conviction that she needed to stay in her home. They left her extra bottled water and some bananas to see her through the night until someone could come check on her again the next day.

This is how I came to meet Helen. When the rescue squad returned to the firehouse, they shared their concern for Helen with the some of their co-workers. Since I had previously volunteered to go make calls on people who needed spiritual or emotional support, the suggestion was made that I be contacted to make a call on Helen. I gladly agreed. I didn't know whether I could do anything for her, but at least I could try to convey the deep concern that everyone had for her well-being. And since I was very familiar with the services being offered at the shelter at St. John's, I felt that might be some reassurance.

The visit to Helen's home was the first I had made to this particular mobile home park on the island. My breath was taken away when I witnessed firsthand the destruction there before my eyes. It seemed from my vantage that every home had suffered some damage from "Charley," from total destruction to the almost universal loss of carports and screened patios. My heart ached because I knew many of my congregants had places in this park and would return to mere shells of what they had left in the spring. It was a sadness that blanketed my soul.

I drove to Helen's place and pulled into the drive. Her car was there still filled with possessions she had taken with her when she left the island under the evacuation order for "Charley." I walked to the door, avoiding remnants of her roof that littered the grounds. Her front door had been literally pried open by the powerful force of the winds and was bent in the middle as if "Charley" were folding a letter with its power. The door could not close because it was bent so badly.

At the door I called Helen's name, and it wasn't long before she came tottering to where I was standing. I introduced myself and told her why I was there. I shared with her the sincere concern that so many people had for her and her safety. I was sweating from the heat outside; I couldn't imagine what the temperature was inside that aluminum oven of a home. She had to be sweltering. Seeing this fragile little elderly women who reminded me so much of my late grandmother, I was determined I was going to use every persuasive skill I could muster to convince her to allow me to take her to the shelter at St. John's.

To my amazement, she really didn't put up much of an argument. She said she didn't have enough gas to get there. I told her I would take her. Then when she insisted that if she went she wanted to have her car, I asked her to let me have her keys to check the gas gauge. There was plenty of gas. I told her I would worry about her if she stayed, and many others would be concerned, as well. But the clincher came when I told her that Father Tom of the Catholic Church would be opening a shelter before long and it would be closer to her home. Everything changed. There was just something about mentioning Father Tom's name that changed everything in her attitude about the shelter. We gathered up all the things she would need, and then I had her follow me to St. John's Episcopal Church where Ann McLemore, the vicar there, took marvelous and loving care of Helen. I left Helen, knowing she was in gracious, compassionate, loving hands. I then went back to the firehouse, where I reported to a worried bunch that Helen was in a shelter. Everyone who knew the situation was greatly relieved.

I wondered what happened to Helen after that. Her place was not really habitable. She was going to have to get a new home. She didn't appear to be a person who had much in life, so I wondered what she would do for housing. Who would take care of Helen? The answer came today.

Helen showed up in the office looking for help. After the shelters closed, she had gone to the home of a family member and the situation was not good. She was not comfortable there, but she had no other place to go. She needed someone to explain her options. She needed someone to tell her what was available to her. That person turned out to be Connie Petito, my administrative assistant. Connie made calls to FEMA and worked the magic she has performed countless times in similar situations and finally was able to secure Helen a place live.

There are countless numbers of "Helens" on the island right now. I am working closely with the Pine Island Long-Term Recovery Committee to insure the unmet needs of people here can be determined and assistance provided. I signed the lease today on behalf of the Relief Committee and Ecumenical Council to provide office space at the "Subway" building for a case manager and volunteer team that will be working through problems like Helen's in the months to come. I am proud to be a part of this effort. I am proud of the island churches that have set the pace in the recovery process. And I am proud of all the support organizations that have gotten onboard in this great humanitarian effort.

The words of Jesus are echoing all across this island: "As you do it to the least of these my family, you do it to me." "As you do it to the least of these, like Helen, you do it to me." Thanks be to God!


Florida Conference United Methodists are encouraged to send contributions to "Florida Storm Recovery Fund" Conference Special #605 to their local church. Church offerings should be sent to the Florida Conference Treasurer, The United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 3767, Lakeland, FL 33802.

Groups interested in forming a work team to assist with hurricane relief and recovery efforts should contact the Florida Storm Recovery Center at 1-800-282-8011, extension 149. The Florida Conference Storm Recovery Team can be contacted by e-mail at StormRecovery@flumc.org.

Donations for relief may also be made to UMCOR Advance #982410, "Hurricanes 2004," and dropped into church offering plates or mailed to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. People donating by credit card can call 800-554-8583.

For conference news and storm updates go to http://www.flumc.org/hurricane_watch/.

This article relates to Local Church Disaster Response.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Harris is pastor of Pine Island United Methodist Church in the Fort Myers District.

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