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Madison church members reflect on experiences with Hurricane Michael relief

MADISON — It’s 2 a.m. on a warm October night in north Florida. Trillions of dazzling stars shine brightly in the clear night sky above, a rare sight for Lisa Heath and her 17-year-old daughter.

The peaceful scene is a far cry from the massive destruction that thousands of Floridians had recently found themselves facing in the form of Hurricane Michael, one of the worst Atlantic hurricanes to make landfall in years.

Heath and her daughter were just two of many volunteers from Madison to journey down to the Marianna, Florida, area to assist with relief efforts the first weekend after the hurricane hit. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they joined dozens of others from their church to don yellow T-shirts and vests for a weekend of clearing trees and helping residents in need.

“Mormon Helping Hands” is the church’s organization that spearheads relief efforts for natural disasters and, occasionally, other “longstanding problems.” In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a standard congregation is called a “ward,” and groups of wards are organized regionally into “stakes.” Huntsville and Madison each have their own stake. When natural disasters occur, other stakes in the region are asked to send volunteers to certain areas to provide service. Stakes in North Alabama were asked to send volunteers to Florida for a total of three weekends in October and November. In that first weekend alone, more than 1,300 people assisted in the relief efforts, yielding a total of more than 21,000 man hours.

According to lds.org, the focus of these efforts is strictly community service.

“I think it is important to say it’s not a proselyting endeavor,” said Jeremy Peel, bishop of Madison 1st Ward. He and his teenage son, Justin, went to Marianna the first weekend. “We’re not out there saying, ‘Hey, while we’re helping you, want to learn more about our church?’ The whole time down in Marianna … there’s never at any point that we’re saying, ‘Hey, if you want to learn more about our church, here’s stuff.’ We’re not handing out anything. It’s just all about ‘what can we do to help?’ How can we fix things, remove things, clean things up for them?”

Peel and several other church members who went down to help in Marianna said the weight of the destruction was difficult to comprehend until they saw it for themselves.

“If you’re not there and you’re not in it, you can’t really fathom the situations like what these people went through,” Peel said. “Even though we can see the destruction on TV and stuff, it’s so much more enveloping, so much more real when you’re down there in the middle of it.”

Driving in on his first day, Peel compared the destruction to a war zone. Tangled power lines and fallen trees made many of the side roads he needed to take impassable. “All that while that I drove down there, there was one power truck putting lines back up,” he said. “For miles and miles and miles, just one truck.” Another thing he noticed were the cotton fields that had become bare of the fluffy, white crop because of the hurricane’s strong winds.

Of course, the area was still experiencing a widespread power outage as well. Tom Spindle, a church member who helped out during the second weekend, said “probably several hundred” volunteers camped out in a field across the street from the cleanup’s command center and a college. Others chose to drive to the Dothan or Enterprise areas in South Alabama to stay in hotels.

“To see [the destruction] in person really changes your perspective,” Heath said. “Even on the news you think it’s terrible, but when you see it in person and think about all the work that has to be done to restore it to try and get it back to normal so people can function and there’s power, I felt motivated to try and be helpful that way.”

When volunteers arrived, they reported to the Marianna Stake Center, which served as the command center for the area’s relief efforts. There, they could figure out which work orders they were going to fulfill. Heath said that in addition to fulfilling the work orders, they were encouraged to talk to the residents and offer support.

According to Brandon Nichols, another member of the church who volunteered to help on the third weekend, each stake was assigned to serve a particular area near Marianna. Serving as a team leader, Nichols and his team divided into two separate crews and completed work orders in Alford, Florida, about 13 miles southwest of Marianna.

Volunteers could access work orders on crisiscleanup.org.

“We would go in, we’d click on an address, and it would give us that information, and as long as we knew it was something we could handle, then we would claim it,” Nichols explained.

Heath and her daughter were able to return to help on the third weekend, this time with more of the family. Heath, her husband and their son and daughter made the journey once again with two siblings in their ward who also happen to be good friends with Heath’s children. While one reason for their return was to experience serving others in need as a family, Heath said the overall need also played a large part in her desire to return for a second weekend.

“After the first weekend, you realize how hard you worked to try and help, and you realize … what a drop in the bucket it just seems compared to all this that needed to be done, so I think the second weekend we went down, I felt really motivated, too, by just feeling like there’s such a need.”

Many of the adult volunteers said they were impressed with the kids’ and teenagers’ willingness to serve despite the gravity of the work.

“I was impressed with the kids that came and worked because there was a lot of physical labor and stuff that was hot and sweaty, so they did a good job to keep going at it and stuff,” Heath said. “I didn’t really hear complaining and stuff from the kids, so I thought that was pretty cool.”

About a third of Nichols’ team consisted of a group in the Huntsville-Madison area who had signed up to help through JustServe. Tom Ryan, who led that part of the crew, said he stumbled upon the opportunity using the website for the first time. Though some family members came down to help as well, Ryan said his and his coworkers’ involvement in the efforts came about to help fulfill their 16 hours of volunteer service time for their company, Inflow.

“We wanted something challenging that was going to force us to plan,” he said. “… With my team, that helped us grow as a team.”

Nichols said Ryan and his group were “great to work with,” and he was impressed with his organization and preparedness for the work that needed to be done.

Ryan communicated with Nichols several times before arriving in Florida, though they did not meet in person until after they both arrived that Friday. Ryan said he enjoyed serving alongside Nichols and other members of the church, calling them “very nice” and “very accommodating.”

“You could tell that they were really into what they were doing, so it was kind of nice to be aligned with somebody like that that really gave a darn,” he said. “… They didn’t push anything in anybody’s face like, ‘Hey, come over to my church.’ ‘Hey, do any of this stuff.’ You wouldn’t even have really known until I was told who they were, so that was nice to be able to be with a group of people that really cared. I enjoyed it.”

Of course, one of the most rewarding parts for all volunteers with the cleanup was meeting and helping residents in the area and being able to see the fruits of their labor. Heath had the pleasure of connecting with several residents as she served over the course of two weekends.

One of these experiences brought her to the last couple she helped on her second weekend down in Florida. A relative had come by as Heath and her crew were on a different job to let them know the couple needed help. “They just felt like they were O.K., so they didn’t ask for any help for themselves, but they really could use some help,” Heath said.

The woman had spent the first several days helping out at the food bank and even gathered names and addresses of people who were in need of help. Heath said her crew was able to find other crews to help some of the people on her list as they tended to the couple’s needs, and she learned that much of the destruction was difficult for them because the hurricane destroyed sheds and other things that were “very sentimental.”

One of their sons had also needed help at his home because the storm tore off the roof over the area of the house that consisted of their children’s rooms, so their belongings were ruined. In addition, the man’s wife was fighting cancer and was in the hospital receiving her first chemotherapy treatment just a couple days before the hurricane hit.

During her time helping at the couple’s home, Heath said she also learned about a mechanic who had lost his livelihood due to the hurricane destroying his place of business, so the man tried to help him out by giving him odd jobs to do. “I thought that was really cool that they were aware not only of their own needs and things that people needed as far as tree repair, or people need food, but that some people—their livelihoods have been destroyed,” Heath said. “… They think of something that that person could do to earn money so they have that dignity of feeling like they’re earning their living, and yet they’re helping out people who have been hit by the storm, so I thought that was really cool to help that couple that was so helpful to other people.”

Peel said he and his team did a lot of work clearing trees and debris, as well as tarping roofs and cutting up damaged tin roofs to safely discard. At a low-income apartment complex in their area, they worked hard to clear a tree that had fallen on a playground and become a hazard to curious, playful children. “We cut it back, covered all the branches, got the portions that were just laying on the playground, cut the rest of it off and got it down to where it was just the basic trunk that was left,” he said.

Another experience that stood out to him was helping an elderly woman clear a path in her driveway. Her circular driveway once went around a tree and a shed, though both were destroyed from the storm, blocking much of her driveway. Because of these difficulties, she had accidentally backed her car into a ditch. At the end of the day, though, Peel and his team were able to clear a path in the driveway and clear out the damaged shed.

Nichols said he and his entire team completed about a dozen work orders during their time. Most of their work also consisted of safely clearing trees out of the way from homes. Luckily, a couple members of his team “really knew what they were doing” with the chainsaws, which helped them successfully clear the branches away without doing additional damage. “They were doing surgery,” he said, laughing. “You’ve got to remove stuff in a proper way or you get in big trouble. They were pretty experienced, so that helped.” Their presence was a blessing to the elderly population of Alford, and both Nichols and other members were happy to be helping free of charge.

“There’s these businesses that will just try and come in and make as much money as they can off these poor people, so it’s great to give them the option of, ‘You know, you’ve had this terrible thing happen. Let’s come in and help you, and you don’t have to pay us anything,’” Nichols said. “It’s just great to be a part of that and see people helping people.”

“My favorite part was being able to give back to a community that I didn’t live in,” Ryan said. Growing up on the Mississippi gulf coast, Ryan had been through hurricanes before, so he was well acquainted with the difficult work that was often required of them in those times. He was also aware of how much it can cost to get help and how assistance from FEMA is not always enough. “[The residents] were just ecstatic to have somebody out there,” he said. “A lot of them that I talked to didn’t have homeowners insurance, so a lot of the stuff was left on them to pay for.”

For Spindle, it was rewarding to see the enormous sense of gratitude from the people they helped.

“The biggest thing to me was just that every little bit helped,” he said. “… Even though the destruction was pretty massive … [our effort] was only a small dent, but each person we helped was just so thankful. … The heat and the humidity and the grueling labor was just absolutely worth it.”

Though some were new to volunteering through Mormon Helping Hands, many members had helped out with disaster relief before. Though some residents were eager to jump in and help, Peel said he noticed this time that some residents in the complex he worked at wanted to help but were not sure if they could also jump in and start helping.

“I found it kind of sad and dismaying because I was like, this is your home,” Peel said. “I should be asking you that question: can we help?”

Both Peel and Nichols shared some of their experiences helping with flood relief in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Spindle said he helped with cleanup efforts after the tornadoes wreaked havoc on North Alabama in April 2011.

“There was a lot of people that responded that just picked up days after the call went out that said, ‘Hey, we’re going to help,’” Peel recalled. “To me, it just makes me feel good when I see all these people show up. … It’s empowering to see that kind of response from people.”

While many might find it strange to drop everything and spend a weekend doing difficult physical labor to help strangers for free, Peel and his wife, Jennifer, offered a different perspective. Peel referenced Matthew 25 in the New Testament, which he said explains that a good way to serve Jesus Christ is to serve others.

“He’s talking about helping the needy,” Peel said. “… That’s how we serve our Savior and kind of give back to him for everything that he’s done for us is through those efforts, and that’s really what motivates the church is just simply we’re serving God by doing it, and we’re serving our fellow man.”

“We [do these things] because this is what the Savior would be doing or what he would want us to do,” Jennifer added. “He’d want us to help our fellow people.”

Peel said he felt like his heart “grew three sizes” after going down to Florida to help with the hurricane relief.

“I love doing it, love being a part of it, and that was what I got from everybody who went down,” he said. “Even people who were reluctant to go down there at first came back just so excited about what they were able to participate in.”

Madison 1st Ward meets at 1297 Slaughter Rd. in Madison and always welcomes visitors to their Sunday services. To learn more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its relief efforts through Mormon Helping Hands, visit lds.org.

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