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Feeding the thousands: Ministry volunteers work to create path to recovery after hurricane

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Jim George, a Virginia Baptist Disaster Response coordinator, next to a stack of bottled water outside of Second Baptist Church in Washington, N.C., on Tuesday.


By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, September 20, 2018

By the time Greenville ended the state of emergency following Florence, church volunteers from Virginia already were in eastern North Carolina serving meals to people who had weathered the hurricane.

Members of Virginia Baptist Disaster Response began arriving in Washington, N.C., on Saturday, while much of the state was still feeling the effects of Hurricane Florence. The first Baptist feeding unit to open in North Carolina after the storm, it is now serving thousands of meals a day from Second Baptist Church.

“Because of where we're positioned (in Virginia), we were able to come in behind the storm rather than go through the storm to get here,” Kristen Curtis, volunteer coordinator for Virginia Baptist Disaster Response, said. “So we were able to get going faster than people from other places.”

By Monday, Baptists on Mission disaster relief had begun operating in New Bern, Wilmington and Lumberton, serving up to 20,000 meals a day at some locations. Disaster recovery units have been set up in Wilmington, Cape Carteret, Morehead City, Laurinburg and Warsaw. Additional Baptist disaster relief volunteers have come to the state from Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.

“We’ve got other states that are sending volunteers, Illinois, Texas maybe Georgia if things settle down in South Carolina,” said Tom Beam, student mobilization consultant and disaster relief liaison for Baptists on Mission. “There are probably volunteers from 20 different states that are either on their way or will be in our state within the next week.”

On Tuesday, refrigerated trailers, forklifts, portable toilets and pallets of water filled the parking lot at Second Baptist, where some 7,000 meals a day are being prepared.

“You've got to set up your own little city,” Site Supervisor Jim George of Fredericksburg, Va., said as he and his crew finished serving a lunch that included steak sandwiches, baked beans and peaches.

“These people have lost so much. We owe it to them to give them something better than a basic meal,” he said. “So we're going to dress it up when we can.”

Thousands of those meals were being sent out to locations including Chocowinity, Aurora, Sidney and Belhaven. Hundreds more were handed out on site.

Virginia Baptist Disaster Response brought about three dozen kitchen crew members and half a dozen volunteer chaplains to Beaufort County, where they are sleeping on cots and air mattresses inside the church so they can offer physical and spiritual nourishment to people in Florence's wake.

The Rev. Brad Smith, pastor of The Memorial Baptist Church in Greenville, came to help serve lunch on Tuesday, along with about a dozen volunteers from his congregation.

“In (Hurricane) Matthew, before Red Cross and Baptist Men got to town, we were actually cooking out of our church and taking meals (to Grifton),” Smith said.“This year, I think the response was quicker.”

The Memorial Baptist hosted Baptist disaster relief teams for weeks following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. If Florence had shifted its course, the church was prepared to do that again.

“I feel kind of bad for that,” Smith said of the amount of damage in Pitt County compared with communities like New Bern and Wilmington. “I think that's a lot of the way they feel here. We missed it, but we've been on the receiving end of this so, 'What can we do to help?'”

As flooded regions become more accessible, Smith expects more volunteers from his congregation to serve across the state. Already, he has had calls from a church in his hometown of Fayetteville and from a church in Wilmington where he formerly served as an assistant pastor. Both were seeking cleanup and construction volunteers for after the floodwaters recede.

On Tuesday, Virginia Baptist Disaster Response began dispatching recovery teams in Beaufort County, where a hotline has been established for those needing cleanup assistance (495-6040). About 20 volunteers began the task of assessing the damage.

“We're getting a lot of calls about things like, 'When is the power coming back on? Where can we get food?'” Curtis said, adding some callers have said they have no money for gas to be able to travel to get food.

In addition to meals, families arriving at Second Baptist Church for takeout meals were given cleaning supplies, hygiene kits and bottled water. Volunteer chaplains talked with and prayed with families that were waiting to be served.

“Our cooking team and our cleanup teams are busy doing the work that needs to be done, and our chaplains are here specifically to take time to really hear people's hearts, hear their stories,” Curtis said. “A lot of people have been through a trauma and need a chance to process that.”

Services are free and available to anyone in need, regardless of religious preference.

“We come in the name of Jesus, but we're here for anyone whether they share our Jesus or not,” Curtis said. “We want to be here as a compassionate presence, and we're not going to require you to say a prayer or believe a certain way to receive help from us.”

George has been offering help at disaster sites for nearly 20 years. He was sent to Ground Zero after 9/11 and served in Louisiana in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. Following Hurricane Isabel in 2003, he was part of a disaster relief effort that provided nearly one million meals in North Carolina and Virginia.

George knows what it is like to have help arrive in a time of crisis. Virginia Baptist Disaster Response volunteers were there for him when a tornado destroyed his home near Suffolk in 2008.

“I have been on the receiving end, with food and recovery money and people helping us clean up our yard and clean up our house,” he said. “They just really helped us stand on our feet and it was a real blessing.”

That same year, George was diagnosed with cancer, which required surgery and radiation on his jaw. Today, his jaw is fractured, and he is awaiting additional surgery. He is due in Richmond for a CT scan today but plans to drive back to Washington afterward to continue his volunteer work.

“I'll just try to hang around until I get a date for that surgery,” he said. “I figure maybe I'll get some spiritual, physical energy helping others.”

First to arrive, Virginia Baptist Disaster Response is in no hurry to leave. Once the feeding unit is no longer needed, volunteers say the recovery ministry will remain for weeks or even months if needed.

The volunteer organization served in Texas for nearly a year following Hurricane Harvey, just completing its mission in July.

“We'll try to stay here long term,” George said. “We're going to base out of here for ever how many months it's going to take.”