Karen Phillips-Andrews admits she’s pretty tired of folding clothes.
“It makes me not want to do laundry ever again,” she said, laughing as she sorted and folded donations this week at Second Baptist Church in Atlantic City. “But it’s a blessing that we can do this.”
Even before the water from Hurricane Sandy began to recede, religious groups in the region began mobilizing to help victims. Over the past month, they have been a crucial link in providing services to the hungry and displaced, even as many of their own volunteers were also affected. Almost a month after the storm, they continue to provide food, clothing, temporary shelter and assistance in helping victims clean out their homes and start over.
Church officials and members say they are just putting their faith into action and demonstrating that religion is not just a weekend activity. Assistance has come not just locally, but from religious groups across the state and nation.
“It started for us when the Atlantic City Rescue Mission needed a place to go in the storm,” said Jeff Whitaker, associate pastor for programming and media at Shore Fellowship Church in Egg Harbor Township. “Then we started to get calls from all over offering assistance, and when the mission left, it just exploded.”
Operating with its small staff of 18 and volunteers, the church still gets food deliveries from the Red Cross and has been providing bags of food to schools and other sites in storm-stricken areas — more than 4,000 bags so far, and as many as 500 a day.
St. James Church in Ventnor has become a primary port after the storm for victims getting help from Jewish Family Service of Cape May and Atlantic Counties. JFS director of communications Beth Joseph said they quickly realized they could not house all the donations they were receiving at their own site in Margate.
“They were up to the ceiling in our board room,” Joseph said.
She contacted Holy Trinity church officials, who agreed to donate the St. James Church hall where more than 100 people a day from Atlantic City, Margate and Ventnor receive assistance. She said housing is becoming the most immediate need, but some people still don’t have heat and need help filling out government forms to get assistance. About 10 to 15 volunteers a day assist.
“They come from Holy Trinity Parish, from our group, and just people who want to help, like Gilda’s Club,” Joseph said. “It’s been great to see all these people come together.”
Brendon Wilson, the new pastor at the New Covenant Community Church in Somers Point, may be new to the area, but he’s very familiar with disasters, having helped in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
He said that with Sandy, they began planning fundraising and volunteers immediately, and by the second day after the Oct. 29 storm had two international relief teams already on site. So far the groups have helped 60 families with immediate storm remediation, including tearing up carpeting and drywall and removing damaged appliances.
“We’ve taken out 55 stoves,” he said, adding that the work groups are trained and multilingual, and there is an assessment team that evaluates needs. Local groups will continue to work with families, helping them get re-established.
“There is a growing humanitarian problem with people still in homes that are damaged,” he said. “Even today we are still removing carpeting.”
On Long Beach Island, Ocean County, which was hit hard and is recovering more slowly, Grace Calvary Church continues to host a Red Cross food site daily and house the temporarily displaced.
“We’ve still got 50 or 60 people sleeping here at night, then going to their homes to clean out the mud during the day,” Pastor Dan W. Stott said. “We’re one of the few churches on the island that was able to get open.”
He said volunteers have come to help from as far away as California, and he expects the church to continue efforts until at least the end of the year.
“We’re targeting homes that are primary residences, and we know of 100 in our area,” he said. “It’s been amazing to watch people get together. But when people need help, you just respond.”
While the volunteers continue to work, they are getting tired. Some have worked daily since the storm, especially during the week when others return to their jobs. But they see the need, so they keep coming back.
“Sometimes a truck will arrive, and there are only three people here working,” said Whitaker, at Shore Fellowship.
“Pastor said we’ll do this as long as it’s needed,” Jean McClanton said at the small Venice Park United Methodist Church in Atlantic City, which has canned food, clothing and cleaning supplies for local residents, many of whom do not have cars or lost them in the flooding.
Violet Mintess said Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian group that camped out at the Linwood Community Church, helped her clean out her damaged home, so she is happy to help out at the church.
For many, Thanksgiving will be their first day off since the storm. But over in Wildwood, one group of volunteers spent this week preparing a Thanksgiving dinner at the former St. Ann’s School for displaced families and others affected by the hurricane.
Chris O’Donnell, who’s from Wilmington, Del., but a longtime Wildwood visitor, said they plan to convert the school gym into an elegant dining room to make sure families who have been living in local motels since the storm have a nice holiday. Helen Horner, who works at the Days Inn where families are staying, reached out to the Notre Dame de la Mer parish and arranged to host the event at the school.
Volunteers have been soliciting monetary donations and food to make the day special. Tony’s Produce donated all the produce, and the group purchased 10 pre-cooked turkeys, five hams and plenty of dessert to serve a few hundred people.
“We are doing this for all displaced families, wherever they are, but anyone who needs a place to go for dinner can come, too,” O’Connell said. “If someone is that lonely, or that tapped out, they need this, too.”
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