As I began the drive from Miami to Marathon Florida on Wednesday June 5th, I was eager to arrive and begin my Haney Fellowship. I slowly made my way down US Route 1, the main road that stretches through the entirety of the Florida Keys. Upon entering the islands I was captured by the progress made in the rebuilding of damages made by Hurricane Irma. When my family had visited the Keys in the spring of 2018, just months after Hurricane Irma hit, we observed the true destruction that the storm had left behind. In September of 2017, Hurricane Irma, a category four storm, struck the Florida Keys with devastating force. I paid close attention to the progression of the storm, keeping up with its journey from Cuba, through the Keys, and eventually to the mainland. The news showed pictures and videos of the damage left behind but my family’s trip in March of 2017 allowed me to experience first hand what the residents of the Keys had experienced. Many houses were destroyed, countless trees were uprooted, families were displaced from their homes, and rubble still laid in the road. All of this I observed not a week or even a month after Irma, but six months after the storm had passed through.
Habitat for Humanity is a global nonprofit Christian organization that works in all 50 states as well as around the world in order to spread the love of God by assuring that families have a safe and comfortable place to live.Almost two years later it was evident that lots of hard work had been put into the restoration of the islands. No more rubble laid in the streets, houses that were in ruins had been cleared leaving empty lots, and business was buzzing as usual. I began to believe that the circumstances in the Keys may have not been so bad after all.
The next day I began my first day of work with Habitat for Humanity of the Middle Keys (HFHMK). Habitat for Humanity is a global nonprofit Christian organization that works in all 50 states as well as around the world in order to spread the love of God by assuring that families have a safe and comfortable place to live. One of Habitat’s specialties is critical home repair in areas devastated by natural disasters. Whether it be an Earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Japan, Habitat rushes to the scene of the disaster to begin construction.
Habitat of the Middle Keys was still in their critical home repair process when I arrived in June. Immediately after arriving at their warehouse I met the team of builders and we went to the construction site. The first build that we would be working on was a house on the island that needed to be renovated. The house had previously been cleared out meaning that I arrived midway through the process. At first I was overwhelmed by the heavy equipment, power tools, trucks, and trailers. Eventually I was able to pick up some of the techniques my co workers used, which helped me find my way around a construction site. Our daily tasks varied from flooring, to painting, renovating bathrooms, and everything in between.
At first I was overwhelmed by the heavy equipment, power tools, trucks, and trailers. Eventually I was able to pick up some of the techniques my co workers used, which helped me find my way around a construction site. Our daily tasks varied from flooring, to painting, renovating bathrooms, and everything in between. A few days into the build I was sent on a project to go under the house in order to add support beams to the houses foundation. I gathered my tools and followed one of my co workers into a crawl space underneath the house. I was led to an area of rotted flooring, this is where we would be adding the structural support. When we assessed the damage I realized that most of the sub flooring on this house was rotted through. The sub flooring was so rotted that I could stick my hand through it. In complete bewilderment I asked my co worker “What could this possibly be from, a small leak could never cause this?” His answer opened my eyes to the true devastation left by Hurricane Irma. He explained to me that when the hurricane came through nearly all of the houses on the island flooded. If a homeowner didn’t have the money to replace flooring or walls then he or she would have to live in a rotted house. I was shocked by this, It hadn’t occurred to me that flooding had left behind this kind of rotting. If this building had rotten flooring it meant that most of the houses in the flood zone would have similar damage. I was soon to discover that rotten wood was not nearly as bad as the daily trauma others suffered.
During my first weekend in the Keys, a family friend took me for a drive to a town about twenty minutes southwest of Marathon. What seemed to be a leisurely drive through the Keys turned out to be an eye opening experience for me. After crossing a small bridge we passed a sign that said Summerland Key. I was then told that the hurricane struck Summerland the hardest.
As we began to drive through Summerland I saw the devastation that still remained. Everywhere I turned I saw nothing but run down houses. Some had no windows, some no doors, and others lay completely slanted into the ground. I assumed that these houses were no longer inhabited due to their unsafe living conditions. As we continued to drive the scenery became even worse. One aspect that most of the decrepit houses shared were no trespassing signs posted somewhere on the property. My friend explained to me that the tenants of these homes were not legally allowed to be inhabiting them due to such horrific and unsanitary conditions. County inspectors would often approach the homeowners on their properties in order to evict them. Although they carried no legal weight, the signs were the only way that the homeowners could make an attempt to keep the inspectors off their property. It put off a clear image of desperation. If these homeowners were evicted then many of them would be without a place to live.
We continued our drive and entered the western side of the small island. On this side, the damage was even worse. As we drove through the streets my eyes were glaring out the window as we passed by van after van. These vans were parked on empty lots of land, the only other structures were remnants of foundations that once supported houses. These were houses that had either been leveled by the eight foot wall of water that swept through the island or damaged to the point that the owners had no option but to tear them down. These residents then went on to move the remainder of their possessions into vans. These were no luxurious vans, they were vans that were around twenty years old, incapable of driving, and certainly not equipped with air conditioning.
On my drive down to Marathon part of my mind had thought that the damage left by hurricane Irma had been mostly repaired. After my initial week with Habitat I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I had initially expected, the high end properties and areas were able to afford home repairs or rebuilds as where those who couldn’t afford insurance or lived around the poverty line suffered terrible hardships such as losing their homes.
My experience on Summerland Key opened my eyes to the reality behind the work that I was doing with Habitat. In the research that I did before my trip I learned that forty percent of Keys residents lived at or around the poverty line. Working with Habitat took that statistic and made it a reality by showing me the conditions that most of the Keys homes were in.
After my first week our renovations were finished and it was time to move onto our other projects. In the remaining week that I had left with Habitat we began work on two more projects. The first house we would be working on was a house in a trailer park. Trailer parks in the Keys are not the typical RV parks that are seen in the north, instead they are communities of small houses usually occupied by people who lost their homes in the hurricane. The house we would be working on was owned by a couple from Rhode Island who had lived in the Keys for about a decade. The house that they were living in had one room with a bed and a couch, it was about the size of a Portsmouth Abbey dorm room. We were adding a kitchen and two bedrooms to the side of their house. The other house we were working on was a new house that was being built on a lot that had been cleared by the hurricane. This house was built on stilts with support cables incased in a concrete foundation. This style of build had become very popular to those looking to rebuild their houses. It was elevated to avoid flooding and the cable support allowed it to withstand hurricane strength wind speeds.
We made progress at both houses as my second week at Habitat passed by. My two weeks at Habitat came to a bittersweet ending. I was sad to be leaving my coworkers but at the same time I was thankful for the opportunity to help the community and learn so much about working in construction. My coworkers at Habitat thanked me by taking me out to lunch on my last day. It was a fun way to end such a meaningful experience.
Throughout my days with Habitat the hard work and dedication of the employees never failed to impress me. Since Habitat is an organization that relies heavily on volunteer work they are often staffed with minimal employees. In the case of HFHMK this meant that there were only six full time employees. With such small numbers it is crucial that Habitat attracts as many volunteers as it can. After spending such a great deal of time with Habitat for Humanity, I was able to understand the lasting impact that they have on communities and their families.
Throughout my days with Habitat the hard work and dedication of the employees never failed to impress me. Since Habitat is an organization that relies heavily on volunteer work they are often staffed with minimal employees. The next day I headed over to Marathon Community Church, located behind it was an organization called KAIR (Keys Area Interdenominational Resources). Firstly KAIR is a food pantry that distributes meals every day to whomever may need something to eat. Aside from being a food pantry, KAIR also offers therapy to those who suffer from alcoholism, they administer clothing, and much more. While I was there KAIR was beginning its back to school process. At the beginning of every school year, KAIR collects and purchases back to school supplies and distributes them to families who cannot afford to buy their children notebooks, pencils, etc.. My job was to take all of the school supplies that they had, unpack them, count them, catalog the numbers, and then reorganize the supplies. This task had been planned to take me a few days but I was able to go through everything they had in a day and a half. In total there were thousands and thousands of school supplies cataloged.
I had finished my work for the week in under two days, since that was the only task they had planned for me, my boss at KAIR decided to send me to a local Church to help out with their summer camp. I pulled up to St. Columba Episcopal Church about a mile down the road from KAIR. I was not sure what I would be doing at this camp or who I would be working with. After I arrived and met the camp director I was given a brief tour of the Church and recreational facilities. During my tour the camp director explained the mission of the camp to me. The parish ran a summer camp for kids that was free of all charges. This was targeted towards families who could not afford the high fees that it costs to send children to summer camps or day care. The camp was also meant to provide children with an enjoyable and meaningful summer experience. The camp provided many fun activities such as sports or arts and crafts, along with day trips to the beach and Key West.
I spent the day working with the only other camp employee. Together we organized all of the activities that would be taking place at camp. We went through hundreds of boxes of arts and crafts materials, holiday decorations for all of the camp’s holiday theme parties, and we gathered materials for games that had been organized for the children. Towards the end of the day we went to the church’s clothing donation center, this was an area of the church where people from the community would come leave trash bags and boxes full of clothes. After an hour and a half of organizing clothes and a close encounter with an unfriendly snake, our work was done for the day.
As a child I would frequently spend my summer days at camp either playing basketball, football, or working on my sailing skills. Summer camps had been such a meaningful part of my childhood, but the financial aspect had never crossed my mind until I became a camp counselor. Camp counseling brought me so much joy by allowing me to provide to others the same summer experience that I was fortunate enough to receive as a child. Unfortunately not everyone could enjoy that privilege because of the costliness of summer camps. When I discovered St. Columba’s camp I was so happy to hear that they provided all children with the opportunity to enjoy summer camp.
The next day I spent the morning finishing up the previous days work and in the afternoon I was asked to go to the other side of the island to help organize the church’s furniture resale store. This store purchases furniture and sells it at a fraction of the price the pieces would retail at. I drove across the island and met my co workers for the day. In total the resale store had three employees, two of whom I met that day. The boss was a disabled Vietnam veteran named Bobby. Despite his back injury he was in incredible shape and was always willing to lend a helping hand. My other co worker was named Aron, he was going to be a freshman in high school. Together the three of us spent the afternoon organizing the store for a sale they were having later that day. When it came time for me to leave I was incredibly sad that my last day working in the Keys had come to an end.
The next morning I loaded my suitcase into the car and began the sixteen hundred mile journey home. On my way up Route 1 I contemplated all that I had been given over the past three weeks. While working with Habitat for Humanity I had helped in a effort to give others the security of a safe home, during my time with KAIR I had been able to help assure that children would have school supplies for the upcoming year, and finally while working with St. Columba I was fortunate enough to assist in a project that allowed all children to be able to attend summer camp. I cannot be more thankful for the incredible opportunity that I was given.