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Organization, 'yellow-shirted' volunteers make difference for district's relief efforts

Organization, 'yellow-shirted' volunteers make difference for district's relief efforts

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Organization, 'yellow-shirted' volunteers make difference for district's relief efforts

Nov. 8, 2005  News media contact: Tita Parham*  
800-282-8011   Orlando {0395}

NOTE: This is a sidebar to, "Relief efforts in Clewiston show connection at work," e-Review FUMNS  {0392}.

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

CLEWISTON — South West District disaster coordinators Jim Luther (left) and Bill Barnes stand under the roots of a tree in Clewiston that was blown over during Hurricane Wilma. Photo courtesy of Bill Barnes, Photo #05-270.

VIERA — Eighty years ago in West Palm Beach, Bill Barnes' grandparents spent three days feeding soup to orphans who'd been transported from Miami to West Palm Beach in boxcars after a large hurricane hit the Miami area.

Around the same time, the family helped place the cornerstone of the former First United Methodist Church of West Palm Beach, now in a different location and renamed the United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches.

Today, Barnes helps coordinate disaster relief efforts for the South West District of the Florida Conference and is playing a big role in ongoing recovery efforts in Clewiston after Hurricane Wilma.

"I think the spirit of a lot of this probably got started with my grandmother and grandfather," said the 60-year-old Fort Myers resident and member of Cypress Lake United Methodist Church. "Eighty later I'm doing the same thing. I'm in charge of the 'foot soldiers,' so to speak."

Barnes is a native of Georgia and a longtime real estate broker in both Florida and Arkansas. He comes from a long line of Methodists.

After working on disaster relief efforts for several years while living in Little Rock, Ark., part of the "tornado belt," Barnes returned to Florida with a passion for helping churches get organized and equipped in case of hurricanes and other emergencies. Barnes helped with Hurricane Andrew recovery more than a decade ago. Most recently, he and a team helped clean up the parsonage of First United Methodist Church of Clewiston, a huge relief for the church's pastor, the Rev. John Hicks. The Clewiston church has been serving as one of the city's key distribution centers for hurricane relief supplies.

"Our program in Southwest Florida started four years ago," Barnes said. "At the time, the impetus was the late Bishop Cornelius Henderson sending a mandate to all the district superintendents to start doing some disaster planning for each of the areas. I got here and they said, 'We don't have any disaster teams.' "

After garnering support from his district superintendent, then the Rev. Sharon Patch, Barnes said he traveled to churches and "talked to anybody who would listen to me." He encouraged them to form disaster teams at their church and start raising money for a disaster trailer.

"I gave them a list of what kind of trailer to buy and what kind of things to put in it," Barnes said. "They said, 'We don't have hurricanes here.' I said, 'Well, get ready.' "

Churches gradually began to form disaster task force teams and raise money. At the next level in the district's disaster response structure is Barnes and the other four district disaster coordinators, each responsible for certain counties within the district. The Rev. David Harris, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Arcadia, is the overall disaster response coordinator for the district.

Barnes and others in the district, such as fellow coordinator Jim Luther, created an e-mail- and cell phone-driven network to contact each pastor and local church disaster coordinator to find out about needs in the event of a hurricane or other disaster.

"When Charley hit last year, it was the first time we put the system into effect by contacting everybody," Barnes said.

Because Hurricane Charley's largest impact was felt in Southwest Florida, Barnes assembled masses of volunteers six Sundays in a row and sent them to Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and other hard-hit areas. Luther went on "scouting missions" during the week looking for churches with damage to sanctuaries or parsonages and related church buildings in order to help them get up and running again.

"We learned last year that if things are going to happen, they have to happen locally. If you live in Rwanda, UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) is a big help. If you're local, you're out of luck," Barnes said.

Part of what makes Barnes' teams distinctive is their yellow shirts. Barnes brought back about 150 of the shirts from Arkansas. They were left over from his efforts there and imprinted with United Methodist Volunteer and Mission (UMVAM).

"We looked like the department of corrections or something," Barnes said, recalling the shirts' 2004 debut. "We went to Punta Gorda and started cleaning up, and NBC News showed up, and we were on national television with all the yellow shirts."

Barnes said his teams learned a lot during their 2004 hurricane response efforts and improved some of the trailers during the off season.

"Then Wilma comes along, and we have the system in place to call up volunteers. We assemble every Sunday currently," he said.

Harris joins Luther in researching needs during the weekdays and then tells Barnes where to take his team each Sunday.

Barnes said 136 volunteers from all different churches showed up the first Sunday after Hurricane Charley struck. It's proving more difficult to round up people in the aftermath of Wilma.

"It's been tough because the problem is that before (last year) we had such a large area that was not affected that we could call for volunteers from our Southwest Florida system," he said. "But locally we have sustained damage, and the volunteers are fixing their own houses before they can go out and help."

Fortunately, Barnes said, many churches have connections with out-of-state churches that are sending truckloads of volunteers and supplies. "I got a phone call this morning from some guy in Indiana who wants to send people," he said.

Barnes finds plenty of personal satisfaction in his efforts. "It's sweaty, dirty work, sometimes in the pouring rain. It's what I describe as 'feel good' work. You're out there for eight hours a day chain sawing down trees. It takes all the energy you have to climb into your truck and go home at night, but the closer you get to home the better you feel about it," he said. "The level of appreciation you feel is just phenomenal."

Last year, during recovery efforts in Punta Gorda, Barnes said a pastor "cried and hugged me."

"He later said, 'We had lost all hope. Our church was destroyed; our town was destroyed. But when Bill Barnes and those yellow shirts got there, at that point we knew we were not alone and we could make it,' " Barnes said. "Things like that pump you up."

How to help with recovery and cleanup

* Gather supplies, volunteer: Affected areas need a variety of supplies and assistance from work teams. Trucks and truck drivers to deliver supplies are also needed. Because needs change daily, individuals and churches interested in helping should contact the SRC at 800-282-8011, extension 149, or to find out what they can do to help. The center matches individuals/teams with current and emerging needs. Health kits and flood buckets are also needed and can be sent to the Florida Conference Disaster Response Depot in Madison (call to make delivery arrangements: 850-869-0882 or 850-929-4938). Items included in both can be found at

* Give generously: Individuals are encouraged to give to "Florida Storm Recovery" Fund, Conference Special #605, to assist with cleanup and recovery. Checks should include the fund name and number in the memo line. Checks may be given at local United Methodist churches and made payable to the church or mailed to Conference Treasurer, The United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 3767, Lakeland, FL 33802, and made payable to Florida Conference Treasurer. Individuals may also give to UMCOR Advance No. 982523, "Hurricanes 2005 Global." 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 to
UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068 should be made payable to UMCOR.

For response updates go to


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.