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Group from St. Michael’s travels to Florida to volunteer for hurricane relief efforts

Teens and chaperones with Unicoi County’s St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission take a break from their cleanup work in Florida to pose for a photo at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Naples. The teens spent their fall break volunteering to help victims of Hurricane Irma. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Instead of going on vacation or simply hanging out with friends over their fall break, 12 Unicoi County High School students with St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission dedicated their time to assist with Hurricane Irma relief efforts in Naples and Immokalee, Florida. 

Father Tom Charters, Kathy O’Brien, a pastoral associate, and church member Steve Miles all chaperoned the mission trip. The idea for the mission trip came from Elena Orozco, an 18-year-old senior who is originally from Naples.

“I would like to be a youth minister or go into missionary work one day, and I really wanted to travel to Puerto Rico and help with relief efforts there, but with such limited time over fall break that wouldn’t have worked out,” said Orozco. “But I knew that we could still help by making a two day trip to Florida.”

Many of the students already had family in parts of Florida and felt immediate concern for those affected by the hurricane. The students and chaperones were kindly housed by the Andrades – a family to one of the students that went on the trip.

“Many of the Hispanic families in this area started out in Immokalee. They were going between Erwin and Florida for seasonal work,” said O’Brien. “A few families settled down in Florida and some settled down in Erwin.”

On the first day the students were there they assisted with cleanup at the St. Peter the Apostle Church and the Catholic Community Center in Naples, the Center for Catholic Charities that assisted the area. The students spent over five hours picking up debris that had been blown from a trailer park across the street from the church.

“They needed a lot of cleanup, styrofoam and insulation had been blown from blocks and blocks away. It was interesting though, we thought this was a sign, one of the first pieces of debris a student picked up was in the shape of the state of Tennessee,” said Father Charters. “We brought it home with us and put it in front of the altar.”

The next day of the trip they traveled to the Lady Guadalupe Parish in Immokalee, Florida. Immokalee is a highly impoverished area, with a poverty rate of almost 45 percent.

There, the students filled 50 grocery bags with canned goods and necessities to be distributed to a retired community center of about 50 residents. Many of the students were able to speak to some of the residents one on one and hear their personal stories of how the hurricane had affected them.

“At one point we lost two of the girls that came on the trip with us while we were delivering some of the food,” Orozco said. “It turns out that they had found this older couple that had been married for many years and they really got a chance to connect with them.”

Despite the 16-hour drive down to Florida and the broken window and flat tire they experienced on the way, the students all had attitudes of willingness to serve and help others throughout the entire trip.

“Everyone was so enthusiastic about helping, and we thought people might complain about the long drive or hard work, but everyone really seemed to enjoy it,” said Orozco. “Just the smiles on the faces of the people we were helping was so touching. It was such an amazing thing to see.”

On the ride home, the students and church members spent time reminiscing on the things that touched them while they were on the mission trip.

“What touched me was at the retirement center – I saw one man sweeping, and he only had one arm,” Charters said. “I was busy talking to someone, and when I turned around one of the high school students had gone over and asked if he could sweep for the man instead and took the broom. I almost lost it. That’s how the students responded. I’m so proud of them all.”

While the students have participated in other mission projects, such as repairing homes or fundraising, this was the furthest they had gone for a mission trip. After seeing the success and impact of the trip, Orozco is eager to go on many more mission trips.

“I’ve worked with teens my whole life, and they really have a lot of great ideas,” said O’Brien. “They’re hope for our future, and when they want to do things like this it is so important to support that.”