Author’s Note: SUNCOAST DISASTER RECOVERY FUND
The day after Hurricane Ian hit the Suncoast of Florida, The Patterson Foundation announced a $500,000 donation to catalyze the Suncoast Disaster Response Fund at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County with an additional 1:1 match up to $750,000 resulting in the possibility of $2 million to assist our region as it recovers with resiliency.
*All patron names have been changed to protect privacy.
Even before the brutality of Hurricane Ian and the subsequent historic flooding disrupted the lives of our neighbors in Arcadia, Florida, the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (SCGLR) had planned a Pop-Up Neighbor Through Laundry event on October 8 in DeSoto County. As the stories of people stranded in flood waters, roads and bridges being impassible, and unimaginable destruction began to reach us, we vowed to move forward with the event and to look for ways to make it even more impactful for our DeSoto County friends. But I don’t think we had any idea of how it would impact all of us.
A typical Pop-Up Neighbor event is a surprise. Thanks to the generosity of The Patterson Foundation, all laundry fees are covered during the three hours SCGLR is there. We have books available for the children, volunteers reading aloud, and community partners sharing information and resources. For the October 8 event in Arcadia, The Patterson Foundation provided grocery and gas gift cards, the Arcadia Rotary Club arranged for the Nazarene Church of Vero Beach to be present with delicious hot food to share, Anna Maria Oyster Bar restaurants provided peanut butter and jelly lunches, and All Faith’s Food Bank provided food bags for people to take with them. MCR Health provided backpacks for the children along with important health information, and our friends from United Way Suncoast helped advise people about the community resources currently available and how to access them.
The first members of the SCGLR team left Sarasota at dawn, not knowing how backed up traffic might be on the only open road that could reach Arcadia from the west. They arrived at SuperMatt Laundromat about an hour ahead of schedule to find a busier-than-normal parking lot. News of the event had leaked out, and several families already had their laundry loaded in the machines, waiting for the quarters. Luckily this group of three had custody of the quarters, the gift cards, and several boxes of lunches, so they jumped into action.
That action didn’t stop for five straight hours.
In five hours, 91 families did 1,033 loads of wash. Two hundred fifty gift cards were given away, scores of books were read aloud, stories were shared, hugs exchanged, tears were shed openly, and together we forged a sense of community, neighbor to neighbor.
The first three machines were filled by Cassie*. As quarters were inserted, Cassie said the three machines held all her earthy belongings because she lost her mobile home and all of its contents in the flood. She teared up because she was grateful for the opportunity to wash her clothes and her tears spilled over when she received gift cards for groceries and gas. Her tears were quickly replaced with a smile when she learned that we had peanut butter and jelly lunches. Cassie said, “I’m very hungry. Would it be alright if I had one now?” We told her she could have as many as she wanted now and could take a few with her.
The team quickly got the other washing machines going and learned the names and some of the stories of the others who had been in the laundromat awaiting our arrival. Araceli* had tried to ride the storm out in her mobile home and had watched as the front door blew in and the roof blew off. She ran to her car, where she remained terrified for a few hours until the water level rose. Slowly, Araceli* made her way to a friend’s house on higher ground, certain she was going to die. Although she, too, lost all of her possessions, she was grateful and joyful to be alive.
The rest of the SCGLR team, United Way Suncoast, MCR Health, and a cadre of volunteers arrived and jumped right in, building bonds of compassion and understanding. The laundromat quickly filled, and a waiting list for the washing machines was created.
Tim, who showed patience awaiting a washer, lost a great deal in the Hurricane but refused a gift card when offered one. He said with a grin, “I may have lost a lot, but I have full-time work — give it to someone who really needs it.”
Emily, eight months pregnant, lost all the baby clothes she had in the flood waters for her soon-to-be-born little girl. Despite the trauma of Ian, she still holds on to the excitement of new life.
Hope, empathy, gratitude, and grace were more prevalent than soap suds as we shared this amazing experience. We can’t wait to go back!