Local United Way House offers post-Hurricane Ian relief, long-term recovery support

Local United Way House offers post-Hurricane Ian relief, long-term recovery support


Interfaith charities South Lee, Estero and San Carlos Park United Way House have played many roles in the area since their inception 30 years ago.

Beginning as a conceptual hub to meet the needs of the community, Interfaith soon offered services including transportation to doctor’s appointments, rental assistance, tutoring, budgeting, assistance with registering for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, mental health services, and a summer place for meals and classes arts and crafts for children.

As the nonprofit has seen its community change, it has adapted to those it serves, primarily focusing on low-income, blue-collar families.

“Most of the families we deal with are not chronically poor,” said Interfaith Director Nancy Martin. “We have them, but they are people who are on that border. When people from low incomes fall into what are the poverty guidelines, it is very difficult for them to get out. If you’re above that poverty line, you can move up to a better situation, but we don’t want them to fall there.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the community’s food needs far exceeded access to Interfaith’s other services, resulting in the loss of services due to pandemic guidelines and the expansion of Interfaith’s pantry.

The pantry, which began operating as a drive-thru during the pandemic, has completely taken over the entire Interfaith site, including the classrooms where its services were offered.

Now, with the destruction Hurricane Ian has left in its path, those already struggling are left to figure out how to stay afloat with resources that were already limited before the storm and after the pandemic.

Martin said many communities in the area served by Interfaith were flooded by storm surge resulting in property loss and damage to homes.

“I have several volunteers who live in this area and they still come and volunteer,” she said. “It gives them a piece of normality that they don’t have right now.”

Interfaith began providing food to those seeking help two days after Ian made landfall, with its official reopening day the Monday after the storm. As soon as the door opened, everything was a practical deck.

Volunteer Raymond Lopez is one of the many volunteers at Interfaith who experienced the loss and devastation of the hurricane.

“I looked at my house, the roof was gone, the front was blown off and everything from my living room and bedroom was gone,” Lopez said. Despite the loss of his personal possessions, Lopez sums up the hurricane as simply a bad experience.

His wife, Rafaela, who had just battled cancer, returned as a volunteer as soon as the doors opened.

“We’re here to help everybody else,” Lopez said. “Everyone needs help. My house was damaged, but there are people who had it worse. I want the community to know that we are here and that they can come get food and get help.”

Interfaith works in collaboration with an alliance of organizations to meet the needs of its community, such as Harry Chapin, Love Inc., St. Vincent de Paul CARES, Literacy Council and many others.

Interfaith recently applied for a grant through the United Way to better meet the needs of the community now and in the future.

“We’re a United Way house that no longer has a United Way house so we don’t have a place for these programs,” Martin said. “So we applied for the money and we got it.”

With the grant, Martin hopes to lease a storefront very close to Interfaith’s site to bring back all the United Way programs they previously offered, returning to Interfaith’s roots of being a community service center.

“We could bring them back into the community and become more of a community center and not just ‘We’re the food pantry,’” Martin said. “This community needs more than that.”

In addition to the need to restore former programs, Martin emphasized that time does not always heal in the area of ​​natural disasters.

“What we really need is for this to still be on people’s priority list six months from now,” Martin said. “We have to remember that these areas have not yet recovered. Six months later these people will still need help. Continue to find ways to join and support the community. We’ve been through this before and we know that interest is waning, but need is not.”

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