‘Volunteer Village’ eases volunteer housing crunch in Keys


Volunteer Village in the Florida Keys opened with great fanfare on March 5. The housing was created by the Monroe County Long Term Recovery Group.


September will mark two years since Hurricane Irma mowed through the Florida Keys, but catastrophic reminders remain of the damage it inflicted.

Many houses still need repairs, and volunteer workers sometimes have to choose between helping in the Keys or Florida’s panhandle, devastated last year by Hurricane Michael.

But the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church has kept a presence in the Keys, thanks in part to the fortunate pairing of two pastors who needed only one home. Rev. Terri Hill was assigned to Key West UMC, while her husband, Rev. John Hill, was sent to Big Pine UMC. The churches were close enough together that the Hills needed to occupy only a single parsonage.

That allowed the parsonage from Big Pine Methodist to be converted into a bunkhouse that sleeps 20. After Irma hit, that provided much-needed living space for hundreds of out-of-town volunteers from dozens of churches, and other groups slept and ate there.

The story doesn’t end there though.

John Hill has decided to retire, so a new pastor will begin occupying the Big Pine UMC parsonage this summer. With plenty of Keys homes still in need of repair—and future hurricanes always a threat—volunteers needed a new, reliable and comfortable place to sleep.

Hill’s retirement was the catalyst to create a permanent solution.

Florida Restores team members, left to right: Phillip Decker, Monroe County region team leader; Tricia Hall, Disaster Recovery grants coordinator; Eugenia Gainers, grants monitoring and evaluation specialist; Pam Garrison, Disaster Response coordinator; Rebecca White, lead disaster case manager for Monroe County; Kelly Milner, coordinating disaster case manager, and Amy Greene, Disaster Recovery chaplain.

Innovative community leaders created  "Volunteer Village." They placed two retrofitted shipping containers on county land in Big Pine Key and filled each with metal bunk beds.

“We decided we needed to establish a full-time location that is just for volunteer housing,” said Phillip Decker, regional team leader for the Conference in the Keys.

The storm damaged so many Keys homes that even permanent and snowbird residents have difficulty finding places to live. Finding housing for disaster recovery volunteers figured to be as challenging as tracking down mailboxes swept into the next block by Irma's violent wind.

Volunteers pay $20 per night to sleep in the 480-square-foot structures, which sleep 10. They opened to much fanfare on March 5. Officials hope to add a third container soon.

The containers were placed on chassis that make them portable during hurricane evacuations or when relocated to other sites where recovery help is needed.

“It's kind of a mobile housing project,” John Hill said.

The Volunteer Village was created by the Monroe County Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG), an organization founded in February of last year and consisting of faith-based organizations, including the Conference, non-profits, businesses and government agencies.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) contributed $100,000 to the $215,000 container project. Other major donors included the Centre for Disaster Philanthropy ($48,000), the Ocean Reef Foundation ($50,000) and the American Red Cross ($7,500). Decker, who has worked for the Conference for about 18 months, serves as treasurer on the LTRG executive committee.

Volunteers working to repair an Irma-damaged home.

"Volunteers continue to come, which we are very grateful for because they are very much needed,” Terri Hill said.

Decker said Irma recovery efforts will continue for at least two years. With severe hurricane damage in Northwest Florida, fires in California and disasters elsewhere, Monroe County leaders wanted to ensure that volunteer groups across the country were not discouraged from working in the so-called Conch Republic due to a shortage of volunteer housing.

“We've still got a lot of people that are working on recovery and repairs,” Decker said. “We've got at any time about ten open cases that we are actively working on repairs with.”

Projects are considered complete “when we’ve met their unmet needs,” said construction coordinator Jim Coffey, who has been with the Conference for about 16 months.

Volunteers have completed 39 repairs and two complete rebuilds.  That has enabled 83 people to be placed in a fully repaired or rebuilt home. Approximately 60 percent of the remaining clients have homes still awaiting repairs, Decker said.

The other 40 percent are waiting on complete rebuilds, which have been delayed primarily because of funding gaps.

The full cost of a rebuilt single-family home in Monroe County ranges from $200,000 to $250,000, due to Keys-specific building regulations necessitated by the low elevation and likelihood of high winds.

Came to help

After Irma dumped 30 inches of rain collected into the Big Pine UMC sanctuary, volunteers from across the country came to help repair the church. The Big Pine members persevered. They used an insurance check to purchase a new organ.

Playing joyful music is a sweet reward for helping your neighbors recover from a catastrophic hurricane. But housing volunteers is not the church's only post-Irma role.

“We did a lot of good work with the community, with helping our own church recover quickly and (we) continue the ministries to the locals,” John Hill said.

The church hosts 28 self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Members offered space to the area's Boys and Girls Club whose building was destroyed.

“We're really almost back to where we were before the storm, as a church,” John Hill said. There are still a lot of people who are struggling to get repairs done at their houses. (There's) lots of stuff still to be done.”

The volunteers—particularly college students—made a tremendous impression on Big Pine UMC members. And now the traveling volunteers have a new place to stay.

—Ed Scott is a freelance writer in Venice.


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