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Church helps families the 'starfish' way

Church helps families the 'starfish' way

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church helps families the 'starfish' way

Sept. 30 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0378}

NOTE: This is one of a series of articles on local church and district-wide Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

An e-Review Feature
By John De Marco**

CAPE CORAL — Members of Grace United Methodist Church here are using principles from a story about starfish to help four families displaced after Hurricane Katrina.

Church member and realtor Victoria Heisel and her "Starfish Project Team" have been finding homes, furnishings, jobs and schools for the families, and members have given more than $50,000 for the relief effort.

"We're really caring for them," said the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, pastor of the church.

The church's efforts began in response to a story Acevedo included in the weekly "e-card" he sent to members a few days after Katrina hit. It was about a boy who tried to rescue starfish washed onto a beach near where he lived. There were thousands, and one-by-one he would throw them back into the sea. A bystander berated the boy for his efforts, saying he would never "make a dent" because there were too many. Holding up a starfish the boy said, "It will make a difference to this one."

"Hurricane Katrina left in her wake devastation for millions of people and destruction to the tune of billions of dollars," Acevedo said in the e-mail. "What difference can we make? The reality is we can help a few."

Acevedo then urged members to bring a second offering to church to help meet the immediate needs of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He vowed that 100 percent would be used to help people from areas of the Gulf Coast most damaged by the storm.

Acevedo said that as he sent the e-mail he wondered how to "personalize a tragedy of the size of Hurricane Katrina."

"One of the things that we've learned about missions is that it's got to have a face with it," he said, adding the culture and mindset of the church was transformed several years ago through a training partnership with the Mission Society for United Methodists.

"You can't send money up-line to the bureaucracy and expect them to care for this," he said. "I think we would have given just $10,000 if we had just raised money to give to the relief effort. There are hundreds of people engaged in this ministry."

Acevedo said a staff member suggested the church try to make a difference for a single family, then see what might happen. Moving forward, the church's initial goals focused on using relief agencies in the disaster areas to identify a family they could help. They would then transport the family to Cape Coral, either by picking them up or flying them to the area, find and pay for housing in the community for one year, gather clothing and other basic necessities, help with school enrollments and job placement, and provide a car.

The church is asking the families to try to find jobs (for the adults) and willingly use the church's assistance so they can save money to relocate back to their own communities or in the Cape Coral area. The church is also asking the families to participate in the ministries of the church.

"We're trying to walk that fine line between being helpful and being co-dependent," he said. "We don't want to misuse or mishandle God's resources; that's not just money, that's people. Our small groups are stocking their kitchens and bathrooms with supplies and food. It's an A to Z deal."

The church is also providing counseling through "aftercare shepherds," people who have received Stephen Ministries training, to help family members cope during the transition — like the 3-year-old boy in one family who is now attending the church's preschool. Acevedo says the child feels compelled to pack up is toys everywhere he goes because of his recent memory of leaving his home and not returning.

"We're really using this as evangelism. We want these families to connect with Jesus and with the church, if possible," Acevedo said, adding three of the four families attended worship services at the church Sept. 25.

A number of corporate sponsors, including church members who own businesses, are helping out. "The whole web of networks kind of works together. We're working with the city, all kinds of groups," Acevedo said.

Churches of all denominations in the Cape Coral area are also getting involved. Nearby Cypress Lake Untied Methodist Church has already adopted one family.

"I love the church! I love it when together we work at making this sin-saturated, war-loving hate-filled planet a more loving, kind and holy place for Jesus and his people," Acevedo wrote in a recent e-mail to his congregation. "We are doing this together! And it pleases God!"

How churches and members can help

* Gather supplies for Florida and other affected statesFor Florida: Migrant workers in South Florida were hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. Florida City United Methodist Church/Florida City Hispanic Mission is collecting rice and beans, non-perishable foodstuffs, diapers, health kits, new men's blue jeans in small and medium sizes, new men's t-shirts (or clean t-shirts in good condition) and baby clothes. Call Diane Gutierrez at 305-247-0911 to arrange for delivery of items. Health kit items can be found at For other states: The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) no longer needs donations of bottled water, but other items are in short supply, including health kits, school kits, new sets of twin sheets, new pillows, new blankets and new air mattresses. Health and school kit items and packaging instructions may be found at Items can be sent to the Florida Conference Disaster Response Depot in Madison (call to make delivery arrangements: 850-869-0882 or 850-929-4938) or UMCOR's Sager Brown Depot, P.O. Box 850, 131 Sager Brown Road, Baldwin, LA 70514-0850 (please also provide $1.00 per kit to cover distribution costs and send it to Sager Brown UMCOR Advance #982730, "Contain Your Joy"). Donations of clothing will not be accepted by either the Madison or Sager Brown depot because there are not enough volunteers to sort the clothes.

* Organize volunteer teams — Teams are needed to work in both Florida and other affected states. Those who are interested in being part of a team should contact the Florida Conference Storm Recovery Center (SRC) at 800-282-8011, extension 149.

* Donate — to UMCOR Advance No. 982523, "Hurricanes 2005 Global," or UMCOR Advance No. 901323, "Hurricane Rita" appeal. Contributions can be made online at, at local churches or by phone at 800-554-8583. Checks should include the Advance number and name on the memo line. Checks given at local churches should be made payable to the local church. Checks mailed directly to UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068 should be made payable to UMCOR. Checks to support recovery in a specific region should reflect that.

A camera-ready flier "Hurricanes 2005: How to Help" is available on the Florida Conference Web site at The SRC can be reached at 800-282-8011, extension 149.


This article relates to Disaster Response.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.