Venice Diocese parishes, schools support Panhandle

Fort Myers | In the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Michael, the faithful of the Diocese of Venice have stepped up in ways large and small. From donations of pennies to cases of water or the spreading of the word that much more is needed, people of all ages have continued to help support their brothers and sisters in Christ even weeks after the storm passed.

Much of the local reaction to the destruction of Hurricane Michael hitting the Florida Panhandle Oct. 10 has been out of the Christian belief that we must all help others when there is an urgent need.

About a week after the storm struck, Charles Schmidt of St. Patrick Parish in Sarasota felt compelled to go to Panama City to see what he could do. There he joined other volunteers at St. Dominic Parish in distributing water and hot meals to people desperate for any help.

“It was heartbreaking, but something I felt I needed to do,” Schmidt said after taking time off from work and staying in the area for four days while sleeping in his pickup truck. “It was exhausting work. But I feel I got more out of it than the people who needed the food and water. That were so grateful and reflected Christ in their smiles and looks.”

In addition, there was a natural reaction that such destruction could easily have happened in Southwest Florida and actually has during past storms such as Hurricane Irma (2017), Charley (2004), and Donna (1960).

In the week following the storm, tons of water, food and other emergency supplies were collected at the behest of Bishop Frank J. Dewane in cooperation with Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc.

Those items shipped to the Panhandle went quickly, according to a report from Yuri Kaplun, a Disaster Response Coordinator for Catholic Charities in Venice, who remained in the area for two weeks assisting in the recovery efforts. A second wave of donated items was delivered to the area Nov. 6.

“The need is so great,” Kaplun explained. “It is a daily struggle, but progress is being made and it is great to see. Power is slowly coming back, which makes a huge difference. People are finding hope, but many lost their jobs and have damage to their homes. The need for support will continue for months to come.”

Kelly Metevia, video production teacher at Bishop Verot Catholic High School in Fort Myers, led a group to Panama City to see the damage firsthand the weekend after the storm. Bishop Verot suffered damaged during Hurricane Irma in September 2017 with roofs torn apart and water in numerous classrooms.

What they found in Panama City was shocking and heartbreaking, particularly when they went to St. John the Evangelist Catholic School. The school was destroyed and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

The students found a Diocese of Venice connection there as the school’s Principal is Dr. Vicki Parks, who is the former Diocesan Associate Superintendent of Schools and teacher at St. Andrew Catholic School in Cape Coral who moved to the Panhandle when her husband, a Florida State Trooper, was reassigned to the area.

Metevia and Verot senior Samantha Romero, junior Jenna Howard and freshman Laura Flannery took video footage of the damage and interviewed Parks and others. Using the imagery of destruction, the team created a video to be posted on the social media site, YouTube, to promote a fundraising campaign to help support St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Panama City. As Samantha reports in the video, “Hurricane Michael was too much for the school.”

Parks noted that there was a need to first account for each of the students while still assessing the damage. During that initial look at the damage, she noted that a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was unbroken, and the crosses remained on the walls of the classrooms. St. John students returned to a temporary school Nov. 1 at a Parish Center in Panama City Beach.

The Verot team felt blessed when Catholic schools from across the country came to their aid and knew it was important to give back now. A bucket was passed out for donations during the Oct. 26 homecoming football game and people were also encouraged to drop off donations at the school.

Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in Sarasota raised money during its homecoming week for the same school. St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples divided its funds between the Panama City school and a Catholic high school in North Carolina which had damage from Hurricane Florence.