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Florida Conference asks the question: How can we help you?

Florida Conference asks the question: How can we help you?

Conference News Disaster Recovery


"Florida United Methodist Disaster Call Center. How may I help you?" 

Those are the first words callers to a phone bank on the second floor of the Florida UM Conference building in Lakeland hear from volunteers on the other end of the line.

Nearly everyone has seen video footage of Hurricane Ian's damage wrought throughout Florida. But the phone bank volunteers hear about the misery first-hand from those whose lives were turned upside down by the storm.

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They are a vital part of the Conference's response to the catastrophe, the first link in a chain that could start the flow of assistance. The volunteers are there to assure that even amidst life-changing chaos, the callers are not alone.

"It means so much when someone calls to hear another United Methodist person say that we're here to help you," Conference Mission Training and Volunteer Coordinator Molly McEntire said. "Just hearing that is so important. We can do so much for them.

"It can be emotional for us, but I can handle it because of so many great things the United Methodists are doing right now."

Englewood UMC was one of many churches to sustain heavy damage

Initial reports said that at least 150 UM churches were damaged in a 17-county area affected by the storm, although that number could increase.

"We're still assessing the situation, but it's difficult," Conference Department of Ministry Protection Director LaNita Battles said. "Many of the roads and bridges are inaccessible. We're working with a drone team to see if we can see the damage that way, but under most circumstances, we can't even get close enough to use that.

"We're getting satellite imagery, but that doesn't always show what we need to see. The church might look OK on the outside but have heavy damage inside. We are pushing every day to access properties we haven't been able to see, and we'll keep doing it."

Trained to listen

Before they pick up a phone for the first time, the volunteers are shown a sheet with guidelines about what to say. Calls fall into several categories: Requests for assistance, offers of volunteer assistance, donations of material resources, and financial donations.

They are reminded not to make promises to callers, even if it's something non-specific such as "I think we may have someone who can assist you with that."

Instead, after determining a person's need, they walk callers carefully through a detailed series of questions. When

Volunteer Perry Blocker

finished, they tell callers their information will be given to the appropriate people dealing with their particular issue.

Volunteers from other denominations are welcome at the call center. One of them, Perry Blocker of First Missionary Baptist Church in Winter Haven, came after her pastor suggested it would be a great way to serve.

Her home didn't suffer severe damage, and she believed she was obligated to pay that forward by helping.

"You can almost feel their emotion through the phone," she said. "I've had some elderly people that needed help with their homes. They had holes in their roof and damage outside on the patio. This is my first time doing this, and I figured it would be great if I could help someone. My heart just melted when I saw a video of the damage."

Joining with other relief agencies

Down the hall from the call center, Disaster Response Coordinator Trish Warren was on a conference call with Florida VOAD—Voluntary Organizations Active In Disasters.

During the 50-minute call, representatives from various organizations reported on their activities. They told of the number of meals they had distributed, building supplies they delivered, and so on.

Interestingly, one caller pleaded to redirect food resources away from hard-hit Lee County and Fort Myers.

Trish Warren (left) and Lara Martin along with a reminder that God is in control

"They're telling us they have enough food," he said. "Send the food to other counties that need it more."

Later, Warren joined a convoy of Conference leaders headed to the Fort Myers area for drive-by looks at damaged churches. They planned to share that information with appropriate agencies.

"There are multiple ways to get help," she said. "We want to ensure the local United Methodist churches have the correct information so they can share it with their congregations."

Warren was joined by Lara Martin, the Director of U.S. Disaster Response for UMCOR—the United Methodist Committee On Relief.

"Each disaster is unique," she said. "We have a saying that if you've seen one disaster, then you've seen one disaster. In this case, I consider this very much to be Florida's (Hurricane) Katrina."

UMCOR's mission is to "alleviate suffering and to be a source of help and hope for those left most vulnerable."

It provides long-term recovery grants and other support when storms like Ian overwhelm a community or, in this case, a large swath of Florida.

"The Florida Annual Conference has been a fantastic partner with us," Martin said. "They have been training and preparing for disasters, but one of this magnitude means that members of the disaster teams have been affected themselves.

"But we're always learning. In each disaster, we see something new, and at UMCOR, we invest in readiness."

The long haul

The phones kept ringing back at the call center.

As volunteers listened to callers, they meticulously recorded the information on color-coded pages specific to an area of need. They neatly stacked and organized the pages and waited for the next call.

Unfortunately, there will be more as churches and individuals reach out for help after a disaster that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis described as "biblical proportions."

But the United Methodist Church is about being the hands, feet, and in this case, the voice of Jesus Christ. Even in a situation that may seem hopeless, it's about letting people know they're not alone.

"Florida United Methodist Disaster Call Center. How may I help you?" 

It's a voice callers need to hear.

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Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for FLUMC.org
jhenderson@flumc.org

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