“What is the use of preaching the gospel to men whose whole attention is concentrated upon a mad, desperate struggle to keep themselves alive?” General William Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army, posed this question in the late 1800s; over 100 years later the question is as relevant today as it was when he presented this challenge to the world.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 3 storm, hit Collier County, Florida, on Sept. 10, 2017. Trees toppled onto roofs; other roofs were ripped from homes; exterior shells were shredded, and flooding destroyed floors, walls, ceilings, cabinets, appliances, and furniture. Many residents lost everything.

More than two years later, they are still struggling to rebuild. Families and seniors who were already hard-pressed to put food on the table were exposed to the worst of the devastation. Though previous storm patterns could never have predicted the people least able to recover would be the worst hit, this was the reality for people in southwest Florida, especially in the cities of Immokalee, Copeland, Everglades City, Chokoloskee, and Goodland.

Livelihoods there are primarily based on agriculture and fishing. Men and women at the mercy of Mother Nature to make a living endure in a perpetual state of poverty or near poverty. Resiliency is not in their vocabulary, though persistence, determination, hard work, and survival are the esprit de corps of their very nature.

In keeping with General Booth’s vision for practical living assistance as a real example of Christ’s love, The Salvation Army has a longstanding and powerful policy of disaster assistance to those in need. To that end, Ashley Jones was appointed to the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) in 2016 after more than 15 years of responding to natural disasters as a Salvation Army volunteer and staff member.

Jones’s commitment to helping Collier County recover from Hurricane Irma led to partnerships with other humanitarian organizations.

One of these was Team Rubicon, a group dedicated to helping the survivors of natural disasters. Its membership is unique: 70 percent are military veterans, and 20 percent are first responders. It had been sponsored as a VOAD member by Lt. Colonel Ron Busroe, former National Community Relations and Development Secretary of The Salvation Army. Led by former service personnel whose commitment to serve is deep in their DNA, Team Rubicon celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2020.

Because of Jones’ reputation for excellence, knowledge and practical experience, David Venables, Team Rubicon’s Deputy Director of Rebuild Operations, knew that by partnering and building on the strengths of the two organizations, they could repair and rebuild homes throughout Collier County.

Team Rubicon has more than 100,000 volunteers. They’re run through a training program that covers “muck and gut” cleaning up, roof tarping, tree sawing, heavy equipment operations and damage assessment, among other topics. Before any can deploy – whether to small-scale flooding or a massive fire response – they must pass background checks and complete two FEMA classes in the National Incident Management System.

Upon completion of “basic training,” volunteers earn their badge of honor on their first deployment – a gray T-shirt with the Team Rubicon logo and a “space bar” for their names or call signs.

It isn’t the shirt, but the sweat, dirt and sometimes blood that soaks the shirt, that show these heroes offer hope through the physically demanding work of responding to natural disasters.

There’s a deep desire to provide purpose and comradeship post-service within the organization. Given the reality of 22 veterans a day taking their own lives – veteran suicides have a higher annual death toll than active-service combat casualties – the Clay Hunt Fellowship Cohort Program was born. In the spring of 2018, the eighth round of class members was selected from hundreds of applicants. The eight members of “Cohort 8” would have a profound and lasting impact on Collier County, particularly the town of Immokalee.

Team Rubicon committed to a one-year partnership with The Salvation Army. The morning of Sept. 17, 2018, found the Cohort 8 team at the Disaster Assistance Center Naples of The Salvation Army.

Repair and rebuild training began immediately as disaster case managers of The Salvation Army provided the requests for help from local families and seniors. Some sought repairs; some, funds for roof replacements; and some, total demolitions and rebuilds of their homes.

In the end, 124 residents benefited. Families and seniors who had no hope and no options, who had no insurance, inadequate FEMA assistance and certainly no savings accounts from which to rebuild their lives, received not only safe and comfortable homes but security, safety, peace of mind and a renewed spirit of hope. The Cohort 8 team led 185 “Gray Shirt” volunteers repairing 40 residences and funding repairs on an additional 33 dwellings, thereby turning hurricane victims into survivors.

A new component to Team Rubicon’s long list of services was developed at the Florida rebuild. Working with Paradise Coast Builders, a local partner with The Salvation Army repair program, total rebuilds were initiated. In collaboration with owner Gene Silguero, the Cohort 8 team built two homes from the ground up. Where complete devastation had shattered the lives of two families, the renewed hope, resiliency of spirit and simple, safe living conditions now stood strong.

The spirit of service and championing of recovery for families following a disaster is the heart of both The Salvation Army and Team Rubicon. These two committed organizations have partnered successfully, bringing together all aspects of humanitarian aid in disaster response and recovery. Their heart to turn Hurricane Irma victims into thriving survivors has changed the lives of families and seniors and replaced trauma with hope for the communities of Collier County.

Lisa Loren is a long-term recovery coordinator with the Naples, Florida, Corps. Original story appears in The Southern Spirit

For more information on The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services in Florida, please click here

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