December 6, 2017

Contributed 
The Key Largo Salvation Army's doors caved in under the high winds and heavy rains of Hurricane Irma. The badly damaged store will reopen next year and in the meantime is collaborating with Keys Strong. 

Contributed  The Key Largo Salvation Army's doors caved in under the high winds and heavy rains of Hurricane Irma. The badly damaged store will reopen next year and in the meantime is collaborating with Keys Strong. 

KEY LARGO — Both front doors of the local Salvation Army Family Store were blown down during Hurricane Irma, causing damage to the interior and prompting the normally busy facility’s closure for repairs. 

“(The store) probably won’t open for a couple of weeks. There is no firm date at this time, but are working toward the first of the year,” said Stephen Dick, the Salvation Army’s regional director of development.

Despite the boarded-up storefront’s appearance, the local chapter of the international charitable Christian organization continues to aid in hurricane recovery efforts collaboratively through Keys Strong.

“We aren’t taking things right now. We are encouraging people to call 800-SA-Trucks to schedule a pick-up, but its best for now to get in touch with Keys Strong,” said Kevin Baker, Salvation Army pastor for Monroe County.

The Salvation Army is working with Keys Strong, which is an umbrella of organization managed by Samuel’s House that also includes the Celebration of the Sea Foundation, Entercom Communications and others nonprofits. Keysstrong.org has become a one-point contact for storm recovery efforts.

“We get together with all the organizations each week and try to figure out how to get people in the county back to normal,” Baker said.

“We had to create a network that didn’t exist previously,” said Keys Strong outreach coordinator Sandy Higgs. “We connect the dots. We are working hand-in-hand with Salvation Army. They’ve always done an incredible job and we are helping one another distribute all of the wonderful donations coming in.

“If people need a dryer to use, they can’t wait two months for it and through the disaster funds made available to us, we’ve been fulfilling those needs as best we can.”

The organizations’ distribution centers have shifted focus to become “recovery hubs.”

Some people are just starting to get back into their houses and realizing what they need most, according to Higgs.

Keys Strong is gearing up for that phase now. It’s staged furniture hubs, appliance hubs and other item-specific distribution centers.

“The Star of the Sea is phenomenal at distribution,” Higgs said about the Key West-based food pantry outreach program. “We’ve folded into their organizational aspects. We are not in competition with any other nonprofit. We are just trying to bridge the gap that’s been caused by this disaster.”

Higgs said she’s trying to stage a distribution center in the Upper Keys to assist Irma-affected residents. Keys Strong is seeking volunteers as well.

“We need names, addresses and telephone numbers of the people that need help. They can email us, call us or text us, and we will do our best as quickly as we can.”

There are many in the Keys still in need of help.

“This is just such a large beast and there are so many people still untouched. We have to work together to reach out to them,” said Elmira Leto, founder and CEO of Samuel’s House.

Keys Strong is seeking volunteers to clean homes and help people move back into them.

“Marathon and below, they’re still in desperate need of people to come and clean land. We know that there are still people in Big Pine that are sleeping in tents, people with diabetes that don’t have refrigeration,” Leto said.

The Salvation Army and other charitable organizations have a distribution center located at 30944 Overseas Highway in Big Pine Key. People can pick up clothing and cleaning supplies needed there.

To donate, volunteer or for more information, visit keysstrong.org, or call Leto at 305-434-6564 or Higgs at 305-797-6992.

tjava@keysnews.com