This is just some of the food donated to Guadalupe Social Services of Catholic Charities in Immokalee following Hurricane Irma.

A tale of two towns

Picking up after Hurricane Irma in Immokalee and Ave Maria

Immokalee | Just seven miles of road and partially flooded farmland separate the towns of Immokalee and Ave Maria.

But while Ave Maria advertises itself on its web site as “Southwest Florida’s newest hometown,” Immokalee is a poor farming community made up of mostly immigrants and migrant workers. Hurricane Irma brought these two communities closer after the storm roared through the already impoverished Immokalee.

Phil Peterson, an Ave Maria resident and former U.S. Marine, said there is a real sense of community in Ave Maria. After Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity and gas throughout the town, Peterson said neighbors gathered together in the street and had a block party. They set up grills, cooked food and helped each other clean up fallen trees and debris. Then community members headed to Immokalee to help aid its residents in their recovery.

“It’s community coming together not just to help each other, but to help a community up the road,” Peterson said. “This is the fabric of America in a way that you never hear.”

For two weeks, volunteers from Ave Maria worked side-by-side with other volunteers from Immokalee at Guadalupe Social Services of Catholic Charities, located on the property of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. Young and old pitched in, helping to unload trucks full of donations, handing out food, supplies, diapers and water to long lines of residents who had lost practically everything in the storm.

Local residents started lining up outside the gates at 7:30 a.m., more than two hours early. Although everyone had different specific reasons for coming to the distribution site, most were desperate to receive bottled water and food. Immokalee residents spoke about how the hurricane destroyed trailer homes. There were needs for furniture, including beds and couches.

Gary Snyder, another resident of Ave Maria and a member of the Knights of Columbus, stood outside the distribution center with a pen and a notepad, keeping a tally of all of the people who came to receive aid.

Day after day, truckloads of donations poured through the gates of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Volunteers worked in the intense heat from the time they arrived at around 8 a.m. into the early evening.

Peggy Rodriguez, program coordinator for Guadalupe Social Services, was responsible for keeping the daily distribution operations flowing. “We surprisingly kept it organized as best as we could,” she said.

Rodriguez had help from a security team — Executive Protection Investigative Consultants LLC — that had traveled from Chicago to aid in the disaster relief efforts.

“We wouldn’t have been able to keep a handle on the crowd without them. They’ve been great,” she said.

In the Guadalupe Social Services’ kitchen, which operates as a soup kitchen under normal circumstances, 19-year-old Estefania Vargas put bottles of Gatorade, water and soda into coolers full of ice. Vargas said she has lived in Immokalee since she was 7. She is a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish and helps with catechism classes.

“I love it,” Vargas said. “It is the only Catholic Church in town. Half of the people in town come — all races and all backgrounds.”

She felt compelled to volunteer her time after Hurricane Irma. “I’ve always felt like it was a need after any natural disaster, a need to help the community. Immokalee is home. Everyone who lives here knows what home is.”

Volunteers also came from other parts of the country. Roger Wood, founder of God’s Way Ministries in Milford, Del., brought a truck full of supplies, which included white buckets full of cleaning supplies. The buckets had been decorated by school children and had encouraging messages scrawled across them in bold colors.

A group of young adults from Asheville, N.C., arrived in a modified school bus loaded up with medicine, hygiene products, canned foods and water. Another man brought donated goods from Iowa.

Other sources of aid came from outlying areas. Amanda Dasilva, 17, made the hour-and-a-half drive from Cape Coral to volunteer her time. She and a friend had been trying to gather Hurricane Harvey relief donations when Hurricane Irma hit Florida.

“When Irma hit, we just decided to be where we were most effective,” Dasilva said. “You look at all of the pictures and say you wish you could help. Instead of just saying it, I decided to really get out and help doing stuff.”

Ian Schmoyer, owner of JHS Builders in Fort Myers, said his company had been collecting donations for weeks. He and a small crew of workers dropped off several pickup truck loads of donations on two consecutive days.

Mother and son duo, Tania and Anthony Muriel, came from St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Cape Coral. Tania Muriel said she had learned of the need through the Knights of Columbus at St. Andrew Parish. The pair made light work of a tough job in the food distribution area, tossing packages back and forth to one another in an effort to keep donations organized.

Meanwhile, Hazel Pirnack of Naples carefully backed her SUV up to the distribution center doors. She, her husband, Larry Pirnack, and a friend had purchased $2,000 worth of food and supplies for donation. “We’re all blessed,” Pirnack said. “Some people are not.”

Finally, on Sept. 23, wrapping up nearly two weeks of disaster relief operations in Immokalee, Knights of Columbus members came from all over Florida to grill hot dogs and hamburgers for the hungry community.

Guadalupe Social Services has since returned to its “normal” routine. Staff members are making appointments for financial assistance, the food pantry is open, the soup kitchen is serving hot meals, and the shower program is back on schedule. But, according to Rodriguez, the center is still welcoming donations, with the greatest need right now being financial support, as many people continue to arrive seeking help.