An Inspiring Presence - a volunteer connection that spans 1380 miles.

by Laura Bray

Last August, Chris Burnley watched the news and videos of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction from his home in Virginia, just south of Roanoke. Four days later, with scenes from the disaster still unfolding, a story in his local newspaper caught his eye. The reporter wrote about Steve and Barbara Abbatello, a couple from nearby Union Hall (only 25 miles from Ferrum College, where Chris works), who drove a trailer full of relief supplies to areas near their second home in Aransas Pass, Texas. An idea began to bloom in Chris’s mind. For the past two years, Ferrum students and staff traveled on a service and discipleship-oriented trip during fall and spring breaks; for the upcoming spring break, why not go help a nearby neighbor (or his neighbors) in Texas?

A week or two before Ferrum College arrived, a conference call from the Rio Texas case management and construction office at FUMC Aransas Pass brought Chris, Mike Bock (Project Manager), Vicki McCuistion (Asset Manager), and Steve Abbatello together to discuss what projects the arriving team would work. Steve (a member of FUMC Portland) was volunteering with the Rio Texas construction office, helping with assessments and construction support. “It put shivers down my spine, thinking of what fate had done with their wanting to come to Texas to lend a helping hand,” recalled Steve.

The staff and students arrived in Aransas Pass in mid-March. As they worked with the local team on that ground that included Steve Abbatello, what started with a newspaper article truly came full circle. Such is the connectionality of the United Methodist church in action.

The Book of Discipline itself speaks to connectionality. “Connectionalism is an important part of our identity as United Methodists. It….. provid[es] a connection for ministry throughout the world, all to the glory of God. It provides us with wonderful opportunities to carry out our mission in unity and strength” (para 701). Two groups serendipitously connecting with each other shows the strength of that bond.

Seven months after the storm, Aransas Pass and its residents have made great strides in recovery, but much work remains. Blue roofing tarps still dot the area, and piles of wood, branches, and trash at the curbside attest to the imminent pick-up of still more storm debris. At several areas around town, various crews work to repair homes, inside and out.

Steve said the crews at FUMC-P work directly with the Rio Texas Conference, an UMCOR partner agency, and its local team, including case managers and construction managers. “It’s hard to tell where the FUMC-P efforts end and Rio Texas efforts begin,” he said. “We want to make it as expeditious as possible to get help to people who need it.”

“A lot of people think, ‘it’s seven months later, everything is back to normal, right?’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” he continued. “We have four to five years of solid effort ahead of us, getting people back to where they should be. We’re encouraging everyone to put together Volunteer In Mission (VIM) rebuilding teams and come down here and help.”

The staff and students from Ferrum worked to renovate an outbuilding into a house for a survivor whose nearby home was completely destroyed by the storm. Rio Texas offered to replace the home, but the 80-year-old owner demurred, simply asking to have the outbuilding renovated.  The Ferrum team worked on paneling and plywood. After they left, another team continued the work, including construction of an outbuilding for a washer and dryer. Many of the volunteer team members attend FUMC-P, which itself is undergoing $1 million in storm-related repairs (they currently worship at the neighboring high school).

Students and staff found the experience rewarding. Student Tressa Alfaro is from Houston; her family suffered extensive storm damage. “I’ve never felt so hopeless watching the devastation on television while in Virginia,” she said. “Growing up on the Gulf, I know just how quickly people forget about the storm once the water is gone. Too often, the people who need help the most don’t receive it. This trip was a beautiful opportunity to learn new skills and help others.”

Chris Burley (who serves as the Vice President for Administration and Finance for Ferrum College) said the trip helped fulfill Ferrum’s motto of “Not Self, But Others.”

As a United Methodist affiliated school, “Ferrum’s very nature is missions-focused,” he said. “The most rewarding part of the trip was helping those in need and teaching students the carpentry skills required to help them.” The trip’s success led to an effort to add similar experiences to Ferrum’s three-week experiential courses offered every May.

Student Mikayla Cannaday found the experience humbling. “Some people lost everything, but they still had the biggest smiles. One woman kept asking what I needed. ‘Mac, do you need sunscreen? Do you have enough water? Do you want a snack?’ She was willing to help anybody.”

“I firmly believe that God put us on this earth to love and help other people,” she continued. “If you have the time and ability to help others, you should.”

Toward the end of the trip, Steve and fellow team leader Dave Lofquist hosted a shrimp boil at Steve’s house. “It was the first Cajun shrimp boil for a lot of those kids,” said Steve. “It was our way of thanking them for what they’d done. They put in long days and had built up an appetite”--to the tune of 20 pounds of shrimp, 7 pounds of sausage, and some crab, corn, and potatoes thrown in for good measure.

“These kids could have spent their spring break at Daytona Beach,” said Steve, full of admiration for their hard work and sacrifice. “They represented their school well; their presence here was inspiring.”

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”-- Colossians 3:12 (NIV)


Pictured below: 1 & 2: Ferrum College; 3: Building of the addition, 4: Shrimp boil