A group of southwest Georgia volunteers of the Baptist faith just finished up a tour of duty in Jackson and Calhoun county, helping clear Hurricane Michael debris and in one case, insulating, sheet-rocking and running electricity to a shed that they helped convert into a tiny home.

They also built a wheelchair ramp for that dwelling, occupied by a middle-aged couple with various disabilities. Their home had been significantly damaged in the storm.

The group estimates that, as of last Thursday, they’d removed 38 fallen trees and trimmed back another four-dozen that had broken limbs posing a danger.

About 20 people were involved. The team, with members from places like Ashburn, Sycamore, Pitts, Rochelle, and the Hawk Pond community, are part of a Baptist missions team with chapters across their sector of the state.

Their work was coordinated by the Chipola Baptist Association and the Rev. Fred Fitzgerald, pastor of Rocky Creek Baptist Church. He is the project manager for the CBA’s disaster relief arm. Fitzgerald said he expects to welcome another set of workers in a few weeks.

The crew in town last week stayed at Rocky Creek Baptist. They were able to shower, sleep and cook there. The work squads had hot meals waiting on them when they finished each day’s labor. They brought their own cook team, led by Martha Ann Carter. That kitchen team also included Bethany Posey, who spent her 15th birthday in service to Jackson County.

Fitzgerald said that sacrifice, and those made by the rest of the team, are much appreciated and that the help is much needed.

“We’ve been doing this for 17 months now, and we’ve seen over 10,000 people come here in mission teams. We (the CBA) have had 494 cases referred, and we have about 60 percent done. A lot has been accomplished, but a lot remains to be done. To have the people come in is a tremendous blessing. There are days when my heart is broken to see how people are still having to live. I was in a place just yesterday (in Jackson County), the home of an elderly couple, where they’re living in half their space, just coping as best they can with the damage.”

Fitzgerald said he finds that many people have delayed reporting their need. “Here in Jackson County, we have a lot of people who are reluctant to ask for help, or who will tell us about somebody that they feel is worse off, and they’ll ask us, ‘go help them first.’ That’s the kind of people who live here. The people of Jackson County are just too nice.”

Fitzgerald said that timely funding continues to be a challenge. Money for roof repair, for instance, is needed, in order to get that work done as soon as possible so as to protect more interiors — but the roof work and the materials for it are sometimes expensive. Right now, he knows offhand of about 300 roofs that need repair or replacement.

He said, though, that volunteers from around the country continue to step up and often bring with them supplies and specialized skills that make a big difference. The most valuable gift continues to be a willing heart, he said, and those continue to be in ample supply.

Fitzgerald said the CBA is awaiting the next crew and has no known plans right now of backing off the work detail. “We’re open for business,” Fitzgerald said. “We just happen not to have anybody coming in this week, but we’ve got them coming.” It’s a circumstance that works out nicely with some news recently announced by the North Florida Inland Long-Term Recovery Group.

Many volunteer groups pause local efforts; plans are to return over summer

“In light of the rapidly changing situation with COVID-19, many of the volunteer teams doing recovery work in this area are pausing operations,” said a Monday press release from the North Florida Inland Long-Term Recovery Group (LTR). “Tentative plans are for the teams to return once current risks have subsided,” it stated, with no exact time frame given since that will depend to some extent on the progress made in stemming the spread of the virus.

Calhoun and Jackson counties have been helped by groups such as Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), and All Hands and Hearts, which was just getting started in the local area. “Many other volunteer groups have been on the ground, and are monitoring the situation so they can make adjustments to their schedules, as well. As of now, all groups plan to return to our area once the risks have been mediated, and they can responsibly resume projects,” the release stated.

The LTR’s chairman, Kevin Yoder, offered some observations, as well, in a separate note to his team.

“You are all aware of the evolving situation regarding the Coronavirus COVID -19. There are a few updates we wanted to share with you as it relates to North Florida Inland LTR. Several of our partners are adjusting their work based on travel concerns. MDS, All Hands and Hearts, and Habitat are suspending work for a few weeks so as not to put their volunteers and local people at risk.”

Yoder also announced that a general meeting scheduled for Thursday will be a call-in session rather than a physical session as originally planned.

He also said that a couple of home dedications already planned may be delayed ceremonially but that the families will move in as soon as their work is finished.

The North Florida Inland LTR staff plans to continue productive work despite the temporary idling of volunteer brigades, Yoder said.

“With a decrease in volunteer teams, they can get ahead on some preparations for this next season,” he said of continuing staff activities. “Plus, there are some funding and advocacy efforts to pursue. We are all leading local efforts — whether in the business sector, in churches, or non-profits. Our challenge is to not be paralyzed by fear, but to lead with servant hearts.”

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