UF students spend spring break helping rebuild Sandy victims' lives

Likening the process to frosting a cake, University of Florida student Aida Valdés spreads concrete in the basement of a 91-year-old widow on Long Island, whose home was flooded by Superstorm Sandy two years ago. (Ken Touchton/Florida Baptist Convention)Braving temperatures that barely reached 20 degrees, a dozen University of Florida Baptist Campus Ministry students huddled in Caren Fitzpatrick’s cramped basement, forming a human chain to haul out her moldy and mildewed personal belongings.

When Superstorm Sandy hit her Long Beach, N.Y., home in October 2012, the storm surge emptied 3 feet of rancid salt water into the basement of the family’s home, located two blocks from the ocean.

In the 29 months since the rare fall storm, the family has been overwhelmed by debilitating physical and emotional illnesses, a daughter’s military deployment and a tangle of bureaucratic red tape required to repair the house. They had not touched the ruined furniture, clothes, linens and family treasures rotting away in the basement. For more than two years now, the young adult children whose bedrooms were located in the basement slept and ate in the family’s only living space upstairs.

Displaying a contagious spirit of joy, the students spent hours passing the garbage along the snow and ice-covered driveway to the street, drawing attention from neighbors who questioned why college students would be tackling such a nasty job.

Such inquiries did not daunt the students, who seized opportunities to share the Gospel with all who would listen during the weeklong trip.

“In Florida, we see what hurricanes can do,” said Rhett Thomas of Groveland. “By doing this, we are helping someone with needs in their home who has been devastated, while at the same time sharing the love of Christ with them.”

“I can help, so why shouldn’t I,” added Eric Turner of DeLand. “As a bonus, we get to share the Gospel while we work.”

The group was among 27 Baptist Campus Ministry students from the University of Florida who, along with campus minister Eddie Gilley, spent spring break week, March 1-7, volunteering with the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) in Central Islip, N.Y.

The Superstorm Sandy Rebuild is the outgrowth of the response SBDR provided in the immediate hours after the storm hit. From meeting emergency needs with food, water and basic survival items, the response has grown to helping homeowners with no place else to turn to rebuild their homes and, they hope, their lives.

Rebuild project coordinator Bill Johnson and his wife, Donna, from Cannonsburg, Ky., have served since the first day of the storm, initially helping with the mass feeding kitchens. Their involvement grew from the short-term essentials to long-term needs. Recent funding from the American Red Cross and the New York Institute of Technology enabled the rebuild work to continue through August.

Southern Baptists are the only active recovery group still here, said Johnson. Baptists’ long-term involvement has been noted by government entities and social workers, who refer the needy to the rebuild.

Two years later, with 4,287 volunteers giving more than $5.2 million valued in volunteer hours to rebuild 159 homes and assist another 636 homeowners with chain-saw and repair projects, needs are still being met, he said. At least 40-45 homeowners unable to find help elsewhere have recently requested assistance from SBDR.

Johnson said while homes may appear to be back to normal on the outside, many residents are living in damaged homes. SBDR is working along the southern coast of Long Island, east of New York City, in an area where scores of communities line the Atlantic Ocean.

Homeowners helped at this point, Johnson said, are among the most vulnerable—80-90 years old, living on fixed incomes with no other resources.

While they should be living their golden years in homes they have sacrificed all their lives to pay for, these seniors are spending their last years among the ruins.

Elena, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of those.

Elena lives in Bellmore, N.Y., along one of the many canals that run through the Long Island community. Safe on the top floor during the storm, the 91-year-old widow never imagined the storm surge would sweep a 6-foot wall of water to flood her basement, causing mold to sprout in her walls. Without flood insurance, repairs she tried to make did not complete the job.

Many in the community live on a fixed income and pay as much as $35,000 annually in property taxes.

During the first week of March, UF students laid concrete in her basement, a skill one student likened to frosting a cake. Other SBDR volunteer teams had framed, put up drywall, painted and built a bathroom in the underground home.

“If it wasn’t for the Baptists, I don’t know what I would do,” said Elena. “It’s unbelievable what they are doing for this house. They are the most wonderful persons in the world. As a Catholic I shouldn’t say that, but it was the Baptists that came to help.”

That week, the UF students helped four homeowners with repairs in their houses, including one elderly widow whose home was about to be condemned by the city. Her home had never been touched since the storm, and she was living among the damage and debris. The UF students started the work; other volunteers will continue the cleanup in the weeks ahead.

Chuck McCabe welcomed the collegians into his working-class Massapequa, N.Y., home where he has lived since 1967. It was once a beautiful home, he said. “This place was fantastic until the storm hit,” causing the rain and wind to destroy its contents and walls.

Students repaired drywall, taped and spackled ceilings and painted walls in the living room and den.

“They are God sent. They are my little angels,” McCabe said of the BCM students, who took time to befriend and pray with him during their work.

So the question still begs an answer, while other collegians across the United States flocked to the sun-kissed Florida beaches during their spring break, why did these Baptist students fight the cold, snow and nastiness of a job to minister in New York?

Ryan Kaufman, a senior criminology student from Largo who organized the trip, explained: “I came here two years ago with a smaller team. I saw the devastation, the look in people’s [eyes] when they told you their story. There was fear in their eyes.

“These are people who can’t help themselves, and I can help,” he added.

“Trips like this teach students to love people, no matter their background, belief systems or how they act toward you. You can give them spiritual help, emotional help and physical help.”

Mission trips are second nature to Mandy Devane, a 20-year-old from Kings Baptist Church in Vero Beach who has participated in 16 trips. “Our church didn’t go to camp. We built houses through World Changers and took international mission trips,” she said.

On her first mission trip, she recalled “paying $350 to sit on a scorching hot roof in Alabama” to nail shingles on plywood. When she was not on the roof, she was walking around a strange neighborhood, verbally sharing her faith with people she had never met. But it was all good, she said.

“When you can show the love of Christ and give the gift you’ve received from Him, it’s the best gift, and gives you joy like none other. It becomes a passion.”

Barbara Denman is the Florida Baptist Convention's director of communications. Persons and churches interested in helping with the Sandy Rebuild can contact project coordinator Bill Johnson at bljohnson@namb.net or 1-606-225-0067, or go to www.namb.net/sandy.

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