KISSIMMEE—It has been three months since back-to-back Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico, and The United Methodist Church has been quick to respond.
In Florida, where thousands of displaced families have poured into Orange and Osceola counties, churches are working on two fronts: helping with disaster recovery efforts on the island and helping families who are relocating to the mainland with a successful transition.
The outreach effort has gone from district-wide to conference-wide to connection-wide.
During the week of Dec. 18, for example, District Disaster Coordinator Rev. Harry Howe of the Holston Conference collected nearly 1,300 school kits and more than 1,000 hygiene kits from the 12 districts in his conference. He then drove them more than 600 miles to First Kissimmee UMC, where they will be distributed to children who are just entering Florida schools.
First Kissimmee has become “ground zero” in the outreach effort thanks, in part, to Associate Pastor Rev. Jose Nieves, who grew up in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, where most of his family still lives.
Nieves, who leads a bilingual ministry called Casa de Paz at the Kissimmee church, has organized teams to help meet the basic needs of “families coming into our communities.”
Nieves and his volunteers have held six open house events around Osceola County to welcome their new neighbors and to offer them basic necessities like hot meals and meal vouchers, backpacks with school supplies, clothing, haircuts and gift cards for groceries.
At the same time, they are getting the word out about what churches, businesses, schools and individuals can do to help. They received the support of the East Central District and Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter. As a result, there are conference churches that have collected donations, toys and clothing for the children.
“Since the hurricanes, close to 3,000 new students have entered Osceola County schools,” Nieves said. “There was a wave of evacuees during the first three weeks after the storm, and we anticipate another rush to the mainland in January. We knew Christmas on the island was going to be difficult for islanders without basic needs like electricity and water. The entire power grid has to be rebuilt.”
|Students from First United Methodist School in Kissimmee helped unload 1300 school kits and other supplies delivered from the Holston Conference in December. The donated supplies will provide needed relief to Puerto Rican children displaced by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. --Photo by Don Youngs
Meanwhile, to learn more about the right kind of help for the newly arrived evacuees, Nieves and volunteers have conducted needs assessments with almost 350 of the displaced families.
“We learned that most of the families have at least seven specific needs,” he said. These include employment assistance, housing, language education, case management, identification, transportation and food.
While Puerto Rico is a U. S. Territory, the primary language is Spanish, not English. According to Nieves, most of the evacuees are highly educated. Many are teachers or medical professionals; and while they know English as a second language, nearly 60 percent of the new arrivals say they do not feel proficient enough with English to use it in a professional environment.
As a result, Nieves is encouraging local churches with child care facilities to partner with hurricane relief teams to help the new arrivals with language education. “We are making a big push to offer language classes,” he said.
Housing also is a major challenge. Of the nearly 350 families in his database, 68 percent are staying with relatives, 20 percent are staying in hotels, and the rest are undefined or in an “unsafe” living arrangement.
Nieves hopes donations will help to subsidize some of the families with rent and utility deposits so that they will not have to live in area hotels. “We have learned that when the relocating families go into a hotel, it is hard for them to get ahead,” he explained. “We are concentrating on getting them into rental housing once they have jobs.”
Nieves says his ministry has a strong partnership with area schools, and that the kits that were provided by the Holston Conference will be distributed through them. Howe had expected to deliver 800-900 school kits, but the response from his team of disaster coordinators was greater than expected.
“Ten of our 12 districts took on the school kit project, while two of our districts continued to assemble hygiene kits for the Puerto Rican families,” he said. The school kits include scissors, pencils, paper, a hand-held pencil sharpener, a ruler, large eraser and a box of 24-count crayons.
According to Florida Conference Disaster Response Coordinator Pam Garrison, her counterpart in the Holston Conference, Jim Fetzer, approached her about helping with the conference ministry to Puerto Rican families. “We are humbled by the assistance we have received from within and without our own conference. We are especially grateful to the disaster team in the Holston Conference for seeing the need and filling it.”
To donate to Puerto Rico hurricane relief, click here.
--Suzanne McGovern is a freelance journalist based in Orlando.
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