LDS Teens in Florida Experience Joy Serving Victims of Hurricane Irma

Contributed By Shawn McCausland, Church News contributor

  • 5 December 2017

A few of the Helping Hands volunteers from Tampa Bay-area wards and stakes who answered a call from Church leaders to help the southwest Florida area begin recovering from the storm.  Photo courtesy of Shawn McCausland.

“Service really does bring joy. I can’t wait to do more!” —Evan McCausland, 13, Helping Hands volunteer

As the dawn broke over Naples, Fla., Tye Stevens’ eyes widened in disbelief. He had heard about the damage the city sustained when it took a direct hit from category 3 Hurricane Irma September 10, but seeing it in person left the typically talkative teen at a loss for words.

“I was stunned,” he said. “Trees everywhere, flooded houses, ruined possessions—I couldn’t believe it.”

Tye, 13, was one of hundreds of members from Tampa Bay-area wards and stakes who answered a call from Church leaders to help the southwest Florida area begin recovering from the storm. Some had helped with relief efforts after Hurricane Charlie in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but many had no idea what to expect. That made their first sight of the widespread damage “a little overwhelming,” said Stephanie McCausland, 16, who along with Tye and other youth who came to help is a member of the Providence Ward in Brandon, Fla. “There was so much to be done, we almost didn’t know where to start.”

Fortunately, that was already taken care of. Almost immediately after Irma passed, an LDS hotline started gathering hundreds of requests for help from local residents. Using a chapel in the Golden Gate area of Naples as a command post, volunteers grouped work orders by neighborhood and assigned them to small crews comprising both youth and adults. Clad in their cheery yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” t-shirts, and armed with chain saws, tarps, and other supplies the Church trucked in from Orlando and Atlanta, the crews fanned out from Estero to Everglades City and got to work.

A few of the Helping Hands volunteers from Tampa Bay-area wards and stakes who answered a call from Church leaders to help the southwest Florida area begin recovering from the storm.

Some of the youth helped clear out houses that had been flooded several feet deep from the storm surge. “Everything had to come out,” said Becca Maximo, 12, “and that was hard work because it was all wet and heavy and there was an inch or two of mud on everything. We had to build a little bridge from stuff lying around just to get into the house. But what was harder was knowing the family who lived there had lost pretty much everything.”

Becca’s father, Julio, who serves as bishop of the Providence Ward, agreed. Many of the people his crew worked with weren’t emotionally ready to let their things go, he said, even though there wasn’t much that could be salvaged. What struck him, however, was that they were full of gratitude rather than despair. “They were thankful to be alive, even though they lost so much,” he said. “And they were grateful for our help even though after working all day it looked like we’d hardly done anything.”

Other crews worked mostly on the downed trees that littered the yards of seemingly every house, cutting limbs and branches and even trunks into manageable pieces and then hauling them to the curb for eventual removal. Some jobs were small and finished in an hour or two. Jonathan Groberg, 17, recalled that his crew came across an elderly woman trying to move a pile of branches that had already been cut and stacked to a place where city crews could get to them. “There was no way she could have done it on her own, but it only took us 30 minutes,” he said.

Other assignments were more demanding. “There was one home where we had to bring in multiple crews,” recalled Evan McCausland, 13. “We had two or three chainsaws going, and about 20 or 30 people stacking the branches. We worked all day but couldn’t finish—some of it was just too big for us to handle.”

A few of the Helping Hands volunteers from Tampa Bay-area wards and stakes who answered a call from Church leaders to help the southwest Florida area begin recovering from the storm.

Whether mucking out houses or clearing debris, the work “really took a lot out of you,” said Tye. The hot, humid weather that persists well into autumn in this part of the country took a toll on youth and adults alike, especially as the relief effort went on. Church leaders asked for help for three consecutive weekends; some members worked all three, others came for one or two. Many camped overnight on local church properties so they could work all weekend; others sandwiched a full day of labor between the down and back legs of the 300-plus-mile round trip from the Bay area.

Though the experience left the youth scraped, bruised, and exhausted (“and smelly,” Evan added), they said it also left them better people. Stephanie said she felt a deeper compassion for the suffering of others. “One older lady we met lost her husband last year, and after the storm she paid someone $500 to clear the trees from her yard but they never did the work,” she said. “I couldn’t believe someone could do something that awful. That made it feel even better when we were able to take that burden off her shoulders.”

Kimberly Maximo, 14, said what impressed her most was how the storm brought people together. “I noticed that there were other churches and organizations helping too, not just ours,” she said. “And when neighbors saw us helping, a lot of times they came over to lend a hand too. It reminded me how important it is to love and serve each other no matter what kind of differences we have.”

Adults who served with the young men and women said their service had an impact on others that transcended the work accomplished. “Most of the folks we talked to were really impressed that these kids gave up their weekends to come serve,” said Bishop Maximo. “Not to mention how hard they worked and how much they got done.”

Camille Metcalf, the ward’s Young Women president, said that was true of the girls as well as the boys. “They were so strong, so determined to serve in whatever way they could,” she said. “Sometimes they were so tired they couldn’t lift another log or haul another branch, so instead they brought water or snacks to everyone else. It was really inspiring to see.”

With hurricane season now past, the kids are back to their normal schedules of school, sports, and jobs. As they look ahead to the coming year’s youth activities, however, they’re looking for additional opportunities to help those in need. “Service really does bring joy,” said Evan. “I can’t wait to do more!”