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Battered Immokalee, workers get help from conference churches

Battered Immokalee, workers get help from conference churches

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Battered Immokalee, workers get help from conference churches

Dec. 3, 2005  News media contact: Tita Parham*  
800-282-8011   Orlando {0407}

An e-Review Feature
By Nancy E. Johnson**

Many in southwest Florida are spending the holidays struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, but United Methodist churches are reaching out, helping people in communities like Immokalee rebuild and recover.

Just 30 miles southeast of Naples is the small town of Immokalee. It sat in the direct path of the storm, withstanding 135 mile per hour winds.

"When the winds changed and came out of the north, there were isolated tornadoes," said the Rev. Peggy Benson, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Immokalee. "But it was a blessing from God because trees would fall next to a house, instead of on a house."

Still, the storm ravaged more than 600 homes in Collier County, most of them in Immokalee, and in a community already devastated by poverty, Wilma made things worse.

The storm wiped out many of the area's crops, impacting the livelihoods of farmers and workers. During harvest time Benson said Immokalee's year-round population of about 19,000 swells to nearly 30,000. She estimates the storm affected a minimum of 10,000 migrant workers and a number of the church's 240 members who are farmers, packinghouse owners and workers.

"The whole situation in Immokalee is impacted because we are so agriculturally driven," Benson said.

The biggest battle the town faces is trying to find housing and food for displaced residents.

Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Naples responded to the call for help. The congregation's "Word in Action" group set up feeding and meal stations to serve thousands of people. The church became a central distribution site. Churches throughout the district united to help. Volunteers loaded semi trucks with food, water and supplies to be shipped to Clewiston, Moore Haven, Everglades City and Immokalee.

"This makes me feel wonderful. We got hit good by the hurricane, but we were able to function," said the Rev. Roy Terry, pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church. "We got our power back, and we were able to help others in need."

Benson says Immokalee appreciates the help. "They (Cornerstone) brought us a couple trailer loads. We were giving food out as fast as we could bag it up. We kept running out," she said.

First United Methodist Church of Immokalee lost a few tiles from its roof, but didn't sustain any serious damage. Benson attributes that to the power of a church prayer group that meets every weekday at 6 a.m. They take a break during the month of July.

"We prayed that God would put His protection on our community because we could be destroyed," she said.

Many of the area's mobile homes were damaged or destroyed, leaving thousands of people homeless. Many are migrant workers and their families. Benson said it is common for seven to 10 people to live in one home. 

Benson is working with a family of 10 that's in temporary shelter in Arcadia, as well as a woman with three small children who's also living in an Arcadia shelter.

"People ask me what they can do to help. The biggest need is housing," Benson said. "People should contact Habitat for Humanity. They desperately need volunteers to get more affordable housing built."

A chainsaw crew from a United Methodist church in Tennessee, along with others, stepped forward to help. One local resident marveled that she had a Methodist and a Mormon on her roof at the same time making repairs.

"These people have come together across ethnic and denominational lines," Benson said. "One good thing Wilma did was tear down the walls of division in this community."


This article relates to Disaster Response.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Nancy E. Johnson is a Florida-based, freelance television and print journalist.