Natural disasters that occur in various parts of the United States usually catch our attention for a few days thanks to national news coverage. Then, unless family members or close friends are involved, they fade from our daily consciousness.
It was two months ago that Hurricane Michael carved a path of devastation along the Gulf coast of Florida. Today the effects are still being felt by those who call that area home. But out of a tragedy that has had an ongoing impact, an impressive relief effort has been born and it is still going strong.
Above, Kathy Gloer and friend Sandi Donaldson help to load a trailer full of relief supplies for hurricane victims in the Florida panhandle. Photo/Hearts with Hope Facebook page.
Like many metro Atlanta residents, Kathy Gloer was affected because her family owns a vacation condo in Panama City Beach. While recognizing the need to see if their real estate was damaged, she also wanted to lend a hand to others. After 20 years in Fayetteville, she and her husband now live in Senoia.
“I went down there to check on it right after the storm and to volunteer at a local church,” she said. “It was in crisis mode.”
That church had become a distribution center for supplies and the headquarters for a mobile food pantry, taking in donations for pickup but also going into the field. As Gloer left the church and ventured out into the community, the after-effects of Michael hit her like a sledgehammer.
“What I saw out there made me shudder,” she said. “Destruction, people living in tents — it was so bad, and it is still bad.”
After two weeks that local church had to scale down its operations to concentrate on getting its own facilities back up to par and helping its own congregation. Gloer knew that there was still so much to do, so she shifted gears and organized her own relief operation. It started with a phone call to her friend Sandi Harris Donaldson on the north side of Atlanta.
“I said, ‘I need you to come to PCB with me,’” Gloer recalled. “She said, ‘OK, I’ll go.’”
Gloer knew what the immediate needs were. Among them were tents, sleeping bags, cleaning supplies, and nonperishable food that could be opened with a pop of a can lid. Another friend with a 20-foot trailer offered to help, as did some others with their own trucks.
A collection point was created at Dogwood Church, where Gloer is a member. In no time the first load was making its way to Florida.
“We took that stuff down, and while we were there we saw the desperation on people’s faces,” she said. “We got rid of that load, worked some more and headed back to Georgia.”
She knew already that this would be an ongoing campaign and needed more help. The pool of volunteers on the coast was almost nonexistent, since most of them were dealing with their own issues such as the destruction of their homes. Something as simple as getting the mail had proven difficult for hundreds of residents because they no longer had mailboxes. Various organizations were still trying to wrap their arms around the size of the need.
At one point some donations were deposited at a church in Port St. Joe and local police put out a Facebook notice. The result was a “feeding frenzy,” as Gloer called it. “People were so desperate. The pastor of the church had to call the cops just for crowd control.”
Gloer started asking around at churches and other places to see just what people’s needs were. She got word from the local school district that there was a desperate need for shoes as well as blankets and other supplies to combat the falling temperatures as winter was approaching.
Back in Fayette County and the surrounding area, she and her team solicited donations and found plenty of people more than happy to give. A visit to Smith and Davis Clothing store in Fayetteville resulted in a particularly large haul.
“They said they’d sell us 300 pair of shoes for $15 each, and these were expensive shoes,” said Gloer.
She accepted the offer without hesitation. The bill was about $4,000. One of Gloer’s friends put it on her credit card, and Gloer went to Facebook for help. Every cent of the money to cover the purchase was raised within six hours.
By this time her relief effort had a name: Panhandle Hearts with Hope. It is not an official nonprofit, so donations are not tax-deductible. It is just a group trying to help needy people, and thanks to support from scores of people in metro Atlanta it is getting the job done.
Not surprisingly, the shoes were a big hit down on the coast. Smith and Davis also provided work boots for local police and firefighters to use, and they loved them, Gloer reported.
“We thought it was important to find the exact need and not just sniff around down there,” she said.
After learning that many school children needed jackets, boxes were placed all over the Fayette community and began to be filled. Smith and Davis came through again, giving a lot of supplies free of charge. Another friend, Frank Murphy, got involved by donating his time and using his own company’s 24-foot truck as a delivery vehicle for the long hauls to the coast.
A toy drive began to form around Thanksgiving, since a man who usually coordinates such efforts in that region had seen his own store destroyed by the hurricane. Gloer and her team stashed donated toys at a friend’s house in Fayetteville, using the code name “North Pole” to keep the location secret and prevent potential burglaries.
“We filled that entire house with toys that people donated,” said Gloer. “We would have rented a storage place if we’d known how much would come in.”
As word spreads here locally, more individuals and groups are getting involved. In the past two weeks Gloer has received an envelope from Landmark Christian School filled with gift cards designated for specific school on the coast.
Other groups at local schools raised significant cash donations. Someone who saw a TV report of a family living in a tent got her Bible study group to donate $800. Gloer received a $500 PayPal donation with instructions to spend it on children. Someone else she doesn’t even know sent the same amount to buy kids’ clothes. A group that makes quilts for patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta donated 76 of their handmade blessings after someone overheard a conversation in a restaurant.
A last-minute plea for volunteers resulted in about 15 people, all of them strangers, showing up Dec. 10 to load the toys for transport. They worked about nine hours, Gloer said. Then she got a call to come over to First Baptist Church in Peachtree City, thinking she’d get a few items to put in her car, and found an entire room full of donations.
“God has moved mountains,” she said. “This has been the most amazing experience, the way people have stepped up and helped.”
It has also made an impression on people who got involved personally. After collecting items through school organizations, Rising Starr Middle teacher Natalie Fields made the trip to Florida with her two sons and other students, football players at Whitewater High, so they could lend a hand at ground zero.
Friends and family members continue to collect supplies from other parts of Georgia — and other states — and bringing them down.
“My goal is to get more of our community involved because they see what’s happened down here, they know how serious it is,” said Gloer.
There are far more stories to share than what can be included in this space. To follow the ongoing effort and get involved, check out the “Panhandle Hearts with Hope” public Facebook group.