Local volunteers return from aiding in Florida hurricane relief efforts

PHOTO: Samantha Zarek

WASHINGTON COUNTY, VA - It's been nearly one month since Hurricane Irma ripped through Florida, devastating much of the state. A group of employees from Emory & Henry College arrived home in Southwest Virginia on Friday after spending nearly a week in the Florida keys aiding in relief efforts.

"I felt like we were able to do it physically, this is kind of what we do, and I felt that calling and wanted to do something," says mechanic at Emory & Henry College Matt French.

A mechanic, plumber, electrician, and groundsman--these four Emory & Henry employees recently returned to Southwest Virginia, after spending a week aiding in hurricane relief efforts on Big Pine Key in Florida. They say making the decision to help was easy, getting there was the biggest obstacle.

"The funds to get there and back, the means to get there and back, you know, none of us had a vehicle that was well enough to take 2,000 miles round trip, and the time to be able to do it, just to be away from work," French says.

The local community pitched in to make their vision of service a reality. Monetary donations, from individuals and the campus church covered travel costs. A vehicle donation from Emory & Henry covered the transportation, now they just needed the time.

"Through the college, they instilled a new policy for the full-time employees to be able to take two days off a year to do a community service, and because of the nature of how far we were going and such, they allowed us to take two days from next year, and then we used some vacation time of our own," French says.

When they arrived on Big Pine Key, they found a devastated island.

"Total destruction, it was just an annihilation of people's homes, streets are just cluttered," says electrician and HVAC technician at Emory & Henry College Mike Taylor.

"There was sewage that had floated that we were working in, roofs torn out, just the inside of houses blown out everywhere, boats flipped around like they were matchbox cars," French says.

After an 18-hour drive to get there, they went immediately to work through Samaritan's Purse, helping with tree trimming and brush removal, and what they call mud outs-- going through flooded homes and disposing of the damage. They did this, among other efforts.

"Shoveling sewage out of the way, raking yards, removing car ports, part of their roofs, tarping roofs," French says.

They say they're happy to help others in a time of need.

"If you get the opportunity to go help someone it'll really change your life, change your heart, and you never know what you're doing for the people you're helping, so if you get the opportunity, go, go serve," says Taylor.

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