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Big Pine UMC uses Hearts, Hammers & Hands to help its community

Big Pine UMC uses Hearts, Hammers & Hands to help its community

Disaster Recovery Missions and Outreach

The Florida Keys have been romanticized in literature and song over the years. Still, residents of that little slice of paradise at Florida's extreme southern tip know it as something much more than singer Jimmy Buffett's mythical Margaritaville.

Long-time resident Steve Steiro said that life there is about looking out for your neighbor and caring as much for them as you do for yourself.

"We are relaxed. We're non-judgmental," he said. "Especially in the lower part of the Keys, you can be in a group that has multimillionaires and others who are just scraping by, and you can't tell the difference."

And if someone needs help, people pitch in because it's what they do. They find a way.

That's what Steiro did late last year when a large project essentially fell into his lap. He is the head of trustees at Big Pine United Methodist Church, located on the island of Big Pine Key bout 30 miles north of Key West.

Residents there are still cleaning up from the catastrophic damage wrought by Hurricane Irma in 2017. More than 600 houses were destroyed, and 1,500 more had major damage. 

Relief agencies, including Florida Restores – part of the United Methodist Committee On Relief – helped a lot. Still, the damage was so extensive that they had to move to other areas even though work remained to be done.
Big Pine UMC suffered major damage in the storm as well. But as the church recovered, members realized they had to continue the work to help their neighbors.

That led to the start of its new outreach: Hearts, Hammers & Hands. 

That church combined with a renowned group of volunteer laborers known as the Nomads to help the residents of Big Pine Key slowly get back on their feet.

"We took the list of unfinished properties that UMCOR and Florida Restores provided and worked with people one or two at a time to get their homes fully prepared," Big Pine UMC Rev. William Finnin said.
Workers did a little bit of everything for their neighbors in need.

They painted homes and replaced damaged siding. They replaced flooring, cleared yard debris, and added an extra room on a house. They have plans to build ramps and widen doors for wheelchairs. 

"Essentially, what we do is collect information from homeowners who live in their property who have damage, still unrepaired, from Hurricane Irma. Sometimes it has to be done with permitting; sometimes we can do it without permitting," Rev. Finnin said.

And Steiro wants to make one thing clear.

"We couldn't do this without the Nomads," he said.

Nomads give a big assist

Steiro has never worked in construction. He is a retired Navy veteran with a heart for service. He and his wife moved to the Keys from Washington state in 1993 and never plans to leave.

"Where else can I go swimming off my dock in December?" he said. "I feel sorry for people freezing up North."
Living in paradise, however, has its drawbacks.

Steve Steiro and his wife, Vicky,

Big Pine Key is basically flat land; no elevation is more than 8-feet high on the island. That leaves it particularly vulnerable for monster storms like Irma, which had a reported 10-foot tide surge to go with the 150-mph winds of this Category 4 storm.

"There was no part of the island that wasn't covered by water after Irma," Steiro said.

Just getting construction material to the site was a challenge, and aid agencies were stretched thin. That's where the Nomads helped. They are a group of retirees scattered throughout the country.

The Nomads travel all over the country in RV's in teams of up to 10 people. They show up for small jobs, like restriping a church parking lot, or major disaster scenes like Big Pine Key. They have construction skills and a heart to help.

"They're the best-kept secret in the church – a group of incredible servants who will do just about anything you ask of them," Rev. Ted Wood, pastor of Community United Methodist in Casselberry, told in an earlier story.

Florida Restores had to shut down its Irma relief effort last October. That's when Steiro was handed a job he didn't expect. He was to coordinate schedules between the Nomads and Hearts, Hammers & Hands

"I'm the guy who got the fumbled football and am trying not to get knocked down," he said.

Part of that is keeping the five RV bays on the church property open because that's where the Nomads will stay when they return in early January.

Regulations cap the RV license for five years, and that will soon run out. Steiro hopes the county will grant an extension. While that goes on, the church will do what it can to continue the recovery even as Florida enters the brunt of hurricane season.

"I had never done this before. I was chairman of the trustees, and they handed the stuff to me. As things happened, I drafted a couple of people to help. Primarily, I try to coordinate and schedule people," Steiro said. "We
built it up on the fly."

A church doesn't have to be big

The lesson here is that a church doesn't have to be large in numbers to help.

"We're a very small church with limited resources, but the church is deeply invested in the community," Rev. Fannin said. "We're averaging about 30-35 people a week in worship.

"But we also 28 12-step meetings a week for alcoholic's anonymous and groups like that. And we have Hearts, Hammers &Hands. It's just one of the quiet ways this church impacts this community."

The work never seems to end, but neither does the will to help. Volunteers have faced everything from a damaged home with nothing left but a few stud walls inside to others that took a bit of patched-up work to make it look new.

"We have people who, because of their age, health, or financial straits, who need help that a basic handyman can do," Steiro said.

If a homeowner can afford it, they are asked to pay for the work permits and the materials. If not, the repairs are free.

Why do it?

Steiro had a simple answer: "Here in the Keys, we help each other."

​Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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