Erica Van Buren
Fort Myers News-Press
Recovery efforts following Hurricane Ian have kept Kathryn Kelly, founder and executive director of The Heights Foundation, and her staff on their toes, switching from serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to cleaning and rebuilding efforts.
“I have a really great staff,” said Kelly. “The hurricane hit on a Wednesday and on Saturday we got together and said, ‘What can we do?’ We’re not trained for this. We thought, ‘Well, we can make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.’ We put a post on Facebook, and people donated bread, peanut butter and jelly. Volunteers came and we made hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with chips and water for four or five days.”
The Heights Foundation, located south of Fort Myers at 15570 Hagie Drive, is a grassroots organization that supports community development programs for individuals, students, and families by providing charitable outreach projects in the community. The foundation also operates a community center, early learning center and school.
Within the boundaries of Harlem Heights, the community the foundation serves, there are 350 single-family homes, 400 apartments and more than 750 children, according to The Heights Foundation website. The neighborhood is situated along Gladiolus Drive in South Fort Myers.
“We logged 260 cases of homes needing assistance in the form of debris removal, tarps, muck out and mold remediation,” said Kelly. “We couldn’t access the apartments since they are rentals, and the owner of the complex is out of state.”
Thirty-one percent of Harlem Heights families live below the federal poverty level. The average household income is less than $25,000 a year. Demographically, the community is 71% Hispanic, 20% African-American and 9% Caucasian.
Hurricane Ian blasted Lee County on September 28. Four weeks later, resources are still needed and organizations like The Heights Foundation are continuing to provide needed help.
“We’ve pivoted from food to clothes, toiletry products and cleaning supplies,” said Kelly. “We put a post on Facebook and I’m amazed at the response from donors. People from all over the country have shown up with donations for us. We had to turn the community center into a distribution center for the neighborhood. I’m really proud of our staff.”
On Wednesday, the center was full of tables stacked with air mattresses, blankets and cleaning supplies while volunteers scattered about completing various tasks.
Kelly said residents are able to come into the center and fill out intake forms, which tells her and her staff of 54 people what each household needs. Some highly requested items include an air mattress, bedding and a hot plate, which the center has on hand.
The clean-up phase of the plan has been a bit challenging for some residents, said Kelly.
“We’re in the muck and gut phase,” Kelly said. “Which is where you haul everything out of the house, cut the drywall. We’ve done that for most of the homes. We still have a few that are left to do. For some people it’s hard to come to the realization that they have to take everything out of their house. Plus so many things are ruined. It’s been a month and people are starting to see mold.
“They realize they have to get it out. Next is the dry out phase. After that we have moisture meters that we use to test the moisture levels. It has to be below 17%. And once it gets below that, then we’ll do mold remediation. We have mold remediation kits that either people can use on their own if they want. We also have crews that can do it too. Hopefully the mold remediation will be done in the next week or two. And then we’re really in for the long process of rebuilding.”
Kelly said next steps include a plan on how to rebuild and looking at how to further assist the residents.
“We’re trying to discern what that looks like,” said Kelly. “We’re going to need drywall, flooring and volunteers to help put it in. We’re partnering with the American Subcontractor Association. We’re discussing having a job fair in the next few weeks. A lot of the residents in Harlem Heights worked on Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. Not only have they lost their homes, they’ve lost their jobs and their cars. The great thing about the American Subcontractor Association is they’re willing to train people. People that are out of work can find work and contractors that need help can get help. I think that’s a win-win, for sure.”
Thomas Goodman, a Harlem Heights resident for the last 45 years, evacuated his home before Hurricane Ian hit. But returned shortly after, having to wade through 5-feet-high water.
“We’re going to overcome this,” said 59-year-old-Goodman. “It’s a hurting thing. This is the first time I’ve witnessed a hurricane of this magnitude. But like I always say, ‘When God calls all of us have to answer, I don’t care what color you are. This world belongs to him. We just have to stick together and help each other. It’s wonderful how so many people came from out of state to help us. I truly appreciate it.”
Goodman says he gets up early every day to tackle the task of cleaning out his house a little bit at a time.
The roof is fine,” said Goodman. “I’m getting the floor together, furniture and stuff like that. Volunteers helped tear down the drywall. I’m an early riser. I get up around five in the morning. I’m thinking about how I can rebuild. I don’t want to waste any time.”
Over 400 volunteers have clocked in at at least 2,800 volunteer hours through October 22, said Kelly.
Volunteering is a family affair, according to Chris Horvath, an Adventures In Missions volunteer who traveled to Southwest Florida from Minnesota with his family.
“Three days before the storm, God called us down here to serve,” said 40-year-old Horvath. “I came with my family of four to serve for the next year and help this community rebuild. “I have my daughters Penelope, Nora, Hazel and son Lucas, ranging in age nine, six, four and two, and my wife Sarah.”
Horvath believes in teaching kids when they’re young the importance of helping others when in need.
“I like it,” 9-year-old-Penelope agreed. “I like doing new things and telling people about God’s word.”
Horvath said the key is consistency.
“We’re here to sustain this community and ensure that there isn’t a lull in between the removal and the start of rebuilding,” said Horvath. “With the help of this amazing neighborhood, we’ve been able to target specific people, the elderly or single moms and dads that are out there that just need help. We’re going to help get them going first, because they need the help to get back into their homes. Some of the people haven’t even left their homes. So I’m trying to keep them as comfortable as possible.”
Horvath said those who have experienced so much loss are ready to get back to some sense of normalcy.
“All we can do is just love on them and let them know we’re here for them in any way, shape or form,’” said Horvath. “Sometimes it’s just bringing a bottle of water over or it’s coming in and helping somebody get the last little bit of floor up so they can start the rebuilding process.”
Erica Van Buren is the underserved communities reporter for The News-Press and Naples Daily News, part of the USA TODAY Network. Connect with her at EVanBuren@gannett.com or on Twitter: @EricaVanBuren32