New York volunteers tackle Irma's destruction at Big Pine UMC


Tom and Wendy Vencuss, part of an Irma recovery volunteer team from the New York Annual Conference, work on rebuilding at Big Pine United Methodist Church.


Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part story about disaster recovery volunteer teams that arrived in January to help Big Pine UMC in the Keys rebuild and repair Hurricane Irma’s damage to the church.

As a charter boat captain in South Florida, Bobby Manske strives to help his clients have the experience of a lifetime. So, it was not surprising that the clients and friends Manske amassed fishing for more than half a lifetime in the Florida Keys called him offering help after Hurricane Irma blew through the state.

With the fishing business shuttered indefinitely, Manske wasted little time responding to the needs of his neighbors, including the members of Big Pine United Methodist Church.

Immediately after Irma came ashore, a number of Manske's clients from across the country started offering to send money and relief supplies. Manske, 52, a Keys resident for 42 years, urged them to wait until after the initial cleanup so he and his neighbors could assess the damage and determine their needs.

After the assessment, Manske and two friends started emailing their clients, asking for various types of relief supplies.

“The response was tremendous,” Manske said, standing outside a convenience store on U.S. 1 in Marathon on a night in early January. The trio asked for gift cards, hoping for cards for local stores like Walmart, Home Depot, Kmart and Walgreen's pharmacy.

“We got that and so much more,” said Manske.

“The chief need was diapers…and shovels…and gloves…and garbage bags,” Manske said. There were no baby supplies, he added.

Jackson Rogers and David Crompton, members of an Irma recovery team from the New York Annual Conference, work on ceiling lighting at Big Pine UMC. -All photos by Ed Scott

The needs seemed endless, but so was the help. Within a week they had accumulated a U-Haul truck full of supplies. Among the places Manske randomly chose to drop off donations was Big Pine UMC.

The Rev. John Hill serves as pastor, and Virgil Allmond is chair of both the Church Council and the Board of Trustees. The church, which opened in 1963, had just begun to feel new again after completion of a five-year facility rehabilitation and remodeling program when Irma struck.

During the remodeling project, workers and church members made hundreds of repairs, said Allmond, a church member for more than five years.

When Allmond, who is retired, returned nine days after the hurricane, he walked into the sanctuary and found water three-and-a-half feet deep. Constructed at a higher elevation, the church's dining hall and education building were under about two feet of water. Irma's brown waterline is visible on the exterior walls today, a reminder of the storm's impact. Ceilings dropped in two rooms.

Members' first reaction to seeing the damage to the church and their remodeling work was feeling overwhelmed.

“In the beginning there were tears,” Allmond said. “Some of us were angry because we had put so many” hours in. “I probably have more hours (devoted to) this church than I have in my home.

“After about three weeks the odor was horrible in the sanctuary,” Allmond said. “It was almost unbearable.”

All of the pew cushions had been soaked. Mold was growing in the joints of the solid wood pews. Laminate pews began to separate.

After the initial shock wore off, the church considered how to begin rebuilding. The facility was professionally decontaminated. A number of contractors made repairs to the church.

Then, two teams of disaster recovery volunteers from the New York Annual Conference and Youth on a Mission (YOAM) based in Nashville, Tenn., arrived recently to help repair Big Pine UMC.

“These mission teams showed up this past Sunday (Jan. 7) and started working with us,” Allmond said. “We're just overwhelmed, not only with the quantity of the work but the quality of the work that they have done.”

Janet Gagliano, a block operator for the Long Island Railroad, was on her third mission trip. She has been to Costa Rica twice.

Arlene Wilhelm, volunteer with the New York Annual Conference Irma recovery team, gives a fresh coat of paint to repaired walls at Big Pine Key UMC.

“There is a real need here,” Gagliano said of Big Pine Key. “These people are so devastated. They just need all the help we can give them.

“I get such pleasure out of helping others because they appreciate it so much. That's one of the things that we take back (from mission trips). We got more out of this than they did.”

Gagliano knew she was in the right place when, during a Sunday church service at Big Pine UMC in which team members were acknowledged, she and husband Steven recognized a woman. They learned she is a winter-season member of Big Pine UMC who also attends their United Methodist Church in Babylon, N.Y.

“Now I really have a face to connect with this disaster,” Gagliano said.

New York team member Kevin Sweet, a member of Memorial UMC in Avon, Conn., has always been “handy.” He does carpentry, electrical work and plumbing in his Farmington, Conn., home. The computer programmer said his family got involved with volunteering through the Texas-based United Methodist Action Reach-Out Mission By Youth (UM ARMY) when his children became old enough to participate. “The kids love it,” he said.

When his pastor Rev. Joseph Piccirillo announced the trip to Big Pine Key, Sweet signed up.

“I think it's wonderful that we are helping the local Methodist church,” Sweet said. Big Pine UMC is “a social network” for the community.   

The two volunteer teams completed about 65-70 percent of the work that was lined up for their simultaneous, week-long mission trips, Allmond said. “They've all just really worked hard.”

Allmond says one of the high points of the church's recovery came after Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems, Southeast district superintendent, arranged for Big Pine UMC to receive chairs to replace the sodden pews. The church was able to host the annual community cantata in the sanctuary.

“The community turned out,” Allmond said. Approximately 250 people attended, a record for that event. “The community just needed that.”

At the Christmas services, everyone’s frowns turned in to smiles, according to Allmond.

“I could see hope in everybody's eyes,” he said, his own eyes welling up at the memory. “It's kind of overwhelming when you see that happen in the church; you go from being kind of beat up to 'wow, we're going to dig through this.’

“Again.”

--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. Together, with God, we are bigger!


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