November 8, 2017

CHUCK WICKENHOFER/Free Press
Keys Vineyard Church in Big Pine Key took on the task of helping residents sort through the wreckage after Irma made landfall.

CHUCK WICKENHOFER/Free Press Keys Vineyard Church in Big Pine Key took on the task of helping residents sort through the wreckage after Irma made landfall.

BIG PINE KEY — As Big Pine Key continues to pull together to dig out of the mess that Hurricane Irma left behind, one pillar of the community has been there for its neighbors from early in the aftermath of the devastating storm.

Keys Vineyard Community Church was established more than 30 years ago, and church staff has worked diligently to provide physical and spiritual support as those hit hardest by Irma searched for help wherever they could find it.

Associate pastor Fran Senecke, who has been with Keys Vineyard for 12 years, says a handful of staff worked to address the multitude of needs of the community, from serving food to tarping roofs, during the dark days just after the storm landed.

“All of us on staff were getting multiple calls, 75 calls a day from members and the community for help,” Senecke said. “It was overwhelming.”

Luckily, Keys Vineyard had help. Senecke estimates that about 25 churches from around Florida and beyond sent volunteers and other necessary aid to Big Pine Key to alleviate the pressure that church staff was under considering the urgent needs of the community.

“A couple of churches up in the mainland started getting together and bringing crews and teams down,” Senecke said. “In the third week we had 400 volunteers go out, (doing) everything from cutting trees down to cleaning lots to ripping drywall out, doing whatever they could.”

One team known as Next Level had previous natural disaster experience with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and offered advice and support to Keys Vineyard staff who scrambled to meet the needs of its neighbors.

“We want to take you to the next level so you can actually calm down, not be caught up in the whirlwind,” Senecke said of the church’s volunteers.

Another church, Bayside, located in Bradenton, helped organize donations via a computer program that summarized the many needs of Big Pine residents and linked to several charitable organizations, such as the Salvation Army, Samaritans Purse and others.

That help was crucial to be able to respond to the multiple requests for help from Keys Vineyard’s neighbors.

“A lot of people were overwhelmed with the amount of debris, the roofs, the drywall and just the wreckage,” Senecke said. “It was too much for one or two people in a house to be able to deal with.”

The church has also been serving food since shortly after the storm hit, a mission which continues as residents take on the daunting recovery effort. Senecke says the overwhelming response from fellow churches and other volunteers and donors meant that his church was able to provide support in a number of ways.

“We started taking deliveries in for food and supplies. We had a tractor-trailer full (of supplies) and numerous U-hauls,” Senecke said. “We broke down the church and lined it with tables; it was like a little shopping center.”

Senecke adds that Keys Vineyard didn’t serve as a shelter, as shelters were available in Big Pine Key. The church did everything else staff and volunteers were able to do for its community, and Senecke says that, while an immense challenge, it was a rewarding experience.

“It was an awesome experience, obviously not one you want to go through, but to see what was taking place, God moving and people helping, the love that started to happen in the midst of the chaos was pretty phenomenal,” Senecke said.

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com