Wisconsin volunteers repair hurricane-damaged home


Wisconsin hurricane recovery volunteers Tom Phillips, Diana Keobke, Kent Keobke and Donna Veatch prepare drywall in the survivors' kitchen and dining area.


The year 2017 will be remembered for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which, for many, ended the 12-year drought of major hurricanes coming ashore on the U.S. mainland. But residents of certain areas of Florida will tell you that the drought truly ended a year earlier, when Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew swept through the state.

It's been 16 months since Hermine became the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Wilma in 2005. One person perished as Hermine, a Category 1 menace, raised a storm surge that destroyed beachfront buildings and toppled trees. One tree fell in a yard behind the property of a Tampa family.

Donna Veatch puts up drywall in the hallway, and Stuart Harper replaces electric outlets in the kitchen. -Photos by Ed Scott

It landed on their home.

The roof collapsed. Rain flooded the interior. The family realized it would be a large expense to repair their home before they could even move back in.

After a long wait, it now seems likely the family will return home sometime this spring. As it has with other homes battered by Hermine and Irma, the Florida Conference stepped up to help the family, who needed everything from a new mailbox to that new roof.

First other workers repaired the roof, completed the muck out (removing mold and standing water) and partially installed new drywall. Then a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) team from Wisconsin spent a week in the Florida sun, primarily prepping and installing drywall and painting the home's exterior.

Volunteers in Mission, the short-term mission agency of the UMC, sent more than 20 workers to West Central Florida for a week-long, construction-oriented mission trip. Team members came from Wisconsin, Tennessee and Florida.

Team members began the week with more than one property on their itinerary, but quickly focused on the aforementioned family's home as their primary concern.

Every mission trip includes surprise tasks. On this trip, the Wisconsin team learned that unexpected plumbing and electrical work awaited them. Not to worry, team member Kathleen Schneider said. Their craftsmanship is superb.

The trip to Tampa is one of about nine or 10 in Wisconsin and across the eastern half of the United States that members of Wisconsin VIM will go on this year, not to mention “chainsaw training, that we do throw in there,” said trip co-organizer Chuck Wedemeyer from Brown Deer United Methodist Church in Milwaukee, Wis.

Wedemeyer, a retired educator, says he learned home repair skills from his father. Volunteers in Mission includes skilled contractors, plumbers, electricians, roofers and painters, plus novice painters and drywallers eager and willing to learn.

VIM will take along anyone who “cares, has a Christian background and wants to serve God by serving others” on its mission trips, Wedemeyer said. A few of the Tampa Bay team members were construction novices paired with experts.

Wayne Kiefer and Mark Laux put up drywall in the bathroom.

“We teach as we go,” Schneider said. “We teach the skill you need, and that's the one you use today.”

The team typically takes its own cooks and lodges at area churches. Wisconsin team members stayed at Wesley Memorial UMC in Tampa. Sometimes they take showers at local YMCAs, but that's a small price to pay, they say, for the opportunity to help others who have experienced hardship.

“It's a much better feeling when you know who you are working for,” Schneider said. “You can ask them questions on how they want something completed.”

Depending on the severity of damage and the stage of recovery, volunteers may be finishing work on a home after its owner moved back in. In this case, the family is living elsewhere, but they made several visits throughout the week to thank the Wisconsin team.

For years during her career as an educator, Schneider took the youth on trips to Appalachia, where they worked on distressed homes. She joined VIM when she retired at 57 and was a member of the board of directors for the Wisconsin Conference VIM for years, leading a number of mission trips. She moved about 15 months ago to Naples, Fla., where she is now a member of Wesley UMC in Marco Island.

The Wisconsin native joined many old friends in Tampa after learning about this trip from a newsletter.

Mary Beth Nienhaus, who lives in Appleton, Wis., and is one of a few Catholics on the team, says her goal is to do one nice thing per day for the rest of her life. A physical education teacher, coach and golf professional before retiring, she joined VIM after volunteering a bit with Habitat for Humanity.

Wayne Keifer and Tom Phillips paint the house.

Nienhaus has been on about 30 mission trips, traveling to Peru, Kenya, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, among other places. She says this VIM group “is special. It's a God-fearing group. We have devotions and camaraderie. These are some of my best friends. It's fun to give back.”

After participating in 60-70 mission trips, team member Wayne Kiefer of Sun Prairie UMC in Sun Prairie, Wis., says each trip is different—and the same.

“It seems like you always get along with people,” the former industrial arts teacher said. “That's what I enjoy about going.”

One of those eager to learn was Mark Laux of Brown Deer, a retired certified public accountant, who went on his first VIM trip a few years ago after being laid off. “I was kind of down, and the trip gave me an opportunity to take my mind off that,” he said.

Laux found a new job and, with other VIM trips in his future, a new purpose. He was paired up with Kiefer to work in Tampa.

“I'm not a handyman,” Laux said. “I'm an accountant by training. The skills that I use here have expanded my horizons.” 

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.

Editor’s Note: Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger


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Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Michael Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Through December 31, 2018, donations will be matched up to $500,000. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery.


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