Irma devastation still widespread in Central Florida



Sometimes the plan you make is not the path you take.

Such was the case for the Charleston Wesley Foundation (CWF), a United Methodist Church campus ministry that serves The Citadel, College of Charleston and the Charleston Southern University campuses in South Carolina.

Noah Pruitt (middle) instructs Charleston Wesley Foundation students Christopher Wode (The Citadel) and Thomasena Thomas (College of Charleston) on measuring the cut for drywall. -Photos submitted by Tasha James

A trip originally was slated for Texas so team members could contribute to disaster recovery work in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which struck southeast Texas in August 2017. Instead, after Hurricane Irma came through Florida in September, a team of 22 CWF students, staff and parents–and a residential contractor–traveled to Highlands County Dec. 14-21, to repair homes damaged by that massive storm.

Meanwhile, Noah Pruitt, owner of PHI Contracting in Charleston, had been busy running his business when the opportunity arose to fill in for his friend, CWF director/campus pastor Aaron Meadows, who was unable to lead the Sebring trip.

Pruitt, who previously went on a mission trip to Kenya, as well as one to Ecuador with Meadows, does local mission work on a regular basis in the Charleston area. He had only about a week to prepare to lead the Sebring construction efforts.

“None of these kids knew anything about the construction trade, so I was able to show them how to do what, and place them and get them working, and then manage activities,” said Pruitt, who believes they were successful because “the underlying vein of Christianity and the Holy Spirit, being alive and well in all of the people that were present, generated a spirit of humility and servanthood.

“Pride and arrogance were pushed aside for that week.”

The trip was coordinated with the assistance of the Florida United Methodist Conference. Team members worked at five locations, cutting down trees, cleaning up properties, gutting damaged houses and installing drywall.

“We saw that Irma came through and created some damage,” said Tasha James, CWF campus pastor. “From the time I met our team in the parking lot … I knew it was going to be a great trip. We had very 'serving' folks go with us who really wanted to help, especially during Christmas.”

Team members paid a fee to go on the trip, portions of which covered travel and the expenses of First United Methodist Church of Sebring (to help defray some local housing costs). “They were fantastic hosts,” James said.

CWF typically conducts local mission weekends. Several Sebring team members had never before been on a mission trip. But Pruitt, James said, “was very instrumental in helping us get drywall up.”

James says even though the trip lasted only eight days, the seeds of spiritual growth took root. Team members were provided opportunities to help others, opening their eyes and hearts in “fascinating” ways, she said.

CWF was the first official team to work on Irma relief in Sebring, James said. As such, the group witnessed devastation at the homes in which they worked, although the Highlands County residences' living conditions varied. Speaking by phone in late December, James recalled helping one woman who will be displaced for a while by the powerful storm. Team members gutted her house.

“We tried to salvage things that she could keep, but most of her home was filled with mold, so we went in and tossed as much stuff as we could, to get it prepared for others to rip out the old walls and replace them with new drywall,” James said. That process took about two days.

Team members also ripped out the walls of another home with excessive mold, this one owned by a woman who has a son with special needs. They took up residence in a camper in their front yard.

Mr. Ray, resident, chainsaws a fallen tree while Charleston Wesley Foundation student David Hellmig (Charleston Southern University) waits to carry off wood to the streetside for pickup.

One team member who grew from the experience was David Days of Chester, S.C., who is a junior at The Citadel in Charleston. Days says initially he was “somewhat hesitant” to spend so much of his Christmas break on a mission trip.

Then he did some research and discovered how, months after the cable news outlets and other journalists had moved on to other stories, there was still much devastation in Central Florida.
“I had to help,” Days said.

When the team came down and saw the damage first hand, Days said, he talked with a survivor, a Guyanese woman whose home they were repairing. The structure had been filled with black mold and she had no way to pay for repairing it, he said.

“It's a few months after the storm and nobody sees it any more in the news and thinks it's all better,” Days said. “But there is so much work to be done.”

Days, 20, who plans to join the United States Air Force after he graduates, says the brief trip prepared him “for service. To see how many different ways that I didn't know that they needed help, that I could help, as far as construction.

“One of the Air Force's core values is 'Service Before Self',” Days said. “What that means to me is being able to sacrifice my personal pleasures to help somebody out.”

The desire to serve does not always end when the trip concludes. Days obtained contact information from various survivors and sent them Christmas cards, telling them if they need any help in the future he would try to provide it. Meanwhile, team members are contemplating making a trip to the Florida Keys during spring break to do disaster recovery work there.

“There's plenty of work to be done,” James said, echoing a refrain repeated several times by Days.

--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 Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery.


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