First-ever event draws 236 volunteers from across S.C.
By Jessica Brodie
NICHOLS—Everything Kristen Wheeler and her husband, Blake, have accumulated in seven years is gone. Their clothes, their furniture, their pots and pans, the blankets and knickknacks that used to adorn their cheerful one-story house—all gone, courtesy of Hurricane Matthew.
The massive hurricane barreled through the Southeast, making landfall in South Carolina Oct. 8 and claiming 46 lives in the United States, four in this state. But as the hurricane moved away, the destruction didn’t end. For some communities, such as the Nichols/Mullins area, the worst was yet to come, as rising floodwaters swamped towns. In the Nichols/Mullins area, all of the churches, nearly all the businesses and more than 230 homes were flooded, among them the Wheelers’.
“It’s only overwhelming when I think about it,” Wheeler told the Advocate, her eyes welling up with tears as she stood outside her home. Parked right next to it is a small camper, where she and Blake now live with their two dogs, Gunner, a Vizsla, and Salem, a rescue dog. The Wheelers knew the floodwaters were coming and evacuated, expecting they’d get maybe 6 inches of water in their home. They got five and a half feet. “Everything was destroyed.”
But thanks to the efforts of 236 United Methodist volunteers from across South Carolina, the Wheelers and other families have new hope and a strong feeling of Christian love and support. The South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church held a work blitz in Nichols/Mullins Dec. 2-3, doing tear-out and mold remediation for 18 flooded homes in preparation for the next step: long-term recovery and rebuild. Armed with hammers, masks and other supplies, teams spent two days removing drywall, pulling out flooring, carting out debris, spraying for mold and more. The work blitz was the first of its kind the conference has held, and the results exceeded organizers’ expectations and brought both victims and volunteers to their knees in gratitude.
“It was phenomenal,” said Matt Brodie, conference disaster response coordinator, who came up with the idea for the blitz as a way for the UMC to be the hands and feet of Christ after the hurricane.
Organizers, including disaster response coordinators from every district in South Carolina, had hoped to get 100 people to help. Getting 236 from all over the state, as well as a few from Georgia, North Carolina, Minnesota and Texas, was “really inspiring,” Brodie said.
“The amount of resources and people that we brought to Nichols made a huge impact on that community,” Brodie said. “Beyond doing the tear-out and helping people physically with their homes, we wanted to provide hope and a sense that they are not forgotten and that there are people who are there for them and want to help, and I think we provided that on a scale much bigger than I had ever imagined.”
At a luncheon the first day of the blitz, South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston praised the crowd of volunteers for stepping up to help.
“You are doing what we all ought to do: to live our faith … and to put words into action,” Holston said, noting the church’s message of transformation is going out into the countryside with joy. “Whenever we gather—whether with a hammer or a Bible, whether with a shovel or a hymnal—it should be a spiritual revival.”
Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle, who himself lost everything in the flood, said it will take a miracle to fix Nichols, and he knows the miracle is happening before his eyes as he watches people come to the community in Christian service.
“Y’all are the ones giving the citizens hope to go forward,” Battle told the crowd of volunteers at the luncheon. “Y’all are wonderful and are doing such a great thing.”
Indeed, Brodie said, the blitz was a miracle—not just in the way so many people came together to get so much work done in such a short time, but also in the way God pushed aside obstacle after obstacle to make everything happen with such God-sized impact.
“Every time we thought we hit a roadblock in planning, someone stepped out without being asked to provide exactly the resource we were struggling to find,” Brodie said. “Clearly we saw God breaking down barriers and providing ways for this event to happen and just sort of showing His awesome compassion for His people. He wanted His people to help other people, and He made ways for it to happen.
Brodie lifted up the work of the 12 district disaster response coordinators who helped him organize the event, especially the Marion District’s the Rev. George Olive, as well as the generous spirit of every person who pitched in to help.
“I can’t say thank you enough,” Brodie said.
Olive said he feels “amazingly good” about how the work blitz went.
“Sure, there are lessons to be learned, but when I saw the work done and the spirit of the volunteers, I was just blown away,” Olive said. “My number one goal, to get hope to the people here, got met.”
“It was truly a wonderful expression of United Methodist Christian love in action,” said Billy Robinson, coordinator of South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Teams, who also played a big role in organizing and serving at the blitz.
Volunteers were not just those trained in disaster response and recovery. Most volunteers had little to no experience other than a willing heart and body, ranging in age from college-age to senior citizens. Brodie said everyone made a difference.
Wheeler, who attends Mullins UMC, couldn’t agree more.
“This has probably been one of the most humbling experiences of my life,” she said, watching as a crew of mask-wearing blitz volunteers headed into her house Dec. 12 to tear out wet drywall. “There’s been just an outpouring of love, people offering pots and pans and places to stay, to this work today, you name it, and it’s very, very humbling.”
The conference is gearing up for its next work blitz, set for Jan. 13-14 in Sellers, also in the Marion District. See article, Page 1, and sign up to volunteer at www.umcsc.org.