Medical Missionaries of Manassas bring hurricane relief to Texas, Florida

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Survivors of Hurricane Irma stood in line, faces creased with exhaustion, behind a huge white trailer that seemed too good to be true. Dr. Gil Irwin and the Medical Missionaries had driven all the way from Northern Virginia to help them. 

This year, Medical Missionaries celebrates its 20th year as a volunteer group of medical professionals who work locally and internationally to serve the poor. Led by Irwin, they collect bulk medicines, medical supplies, clothing, food and relief items from various ministries and organizations and redistribute them where they have the most impact.

Medical Missionaries not only rushes to the aid of victims during emergencies, but they also regularly serve impoverished populations in Appalachia, U.S. Indian reservations, the Dominican Republic, Africa and Haiti.

In Haiti, desperate mothers were known to feed their malnourished children cakes made from river mud for nutrition before Irwin opened the busy medical clinic in Thomassique that includes food programs for children and water purification initiatives.

After Hurricane Harvey slammed into the eastern corner of Texas, Irwin drove down immediately to help. The Red Cross was spread too thin to handle his donations. Undeterred, Irwin drove through the flooded landscape toward Port Arthur. Many of the people there live in houses built directly on the ground or barely a foot above ground. 

The rain had been devastating. Irwin drove until he came upon the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church, where the Rev. Glen Holmes met him with tears in his eyes. When asked if his congregation needed help, Holmes replied, "Yes! No one has come!" Holmes called two other pastors of local, black Baptist churches, and Irwin was able to distribute much-needed supplies to these isolated and appreciative communities.

Irma followed closely on Hurricane Harvey's heels, and once again, Irwin began collecting donations and making connections to send disaster relief. From experience, he knew what was needed. Not only did he pack clothing, baby supplies, toiletries, canned food and fresh water, but also anti-fungal cleaners, adult diapers, towels, bedding, a wheelchair and even a child's bike. Sometimes, the best gifts not only meet practical needs but also restore dignity to those in need.

Irwin had the supplies but he needed a plan for delivery. With power and gas in short supply and limited highways that reached into Florida’s southern tip, Irwin needed a distribution center. Providentially, Frances Van de Voorde met Ann Benkoski after a recent Mass at All Saints Church in Manassas. 

Benkoski was collecting items for the Medical Missionaries, while Van de Voorde knew of a place they could go. Three of her seven children have attended Ave Maria University in Florida. That Catholic university sheltered around 400 people from the town of Immokalee during the height of the storm and joined the local Catholic Charities center in helping with relief efforts. Immokalee is a low-income area northeast of Naples where several neighborhoods have a median income less than $20,000 a year. Many of the families are migrant farm workers and their mobile homes rest on vulnerable ground near an extensive swamp system.

Irwin began his 1,000-mile journey to Immokalee Sept. 23 with a truck and a 24-foot-long trailer packed with supplies. Despite a flat tire along the way, he reached Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Charities outreach two days later. There was already a line of 70 people waiting for assistance. 

With the help of Peter Dirr, a board member of Medical Missionaries who now lives in Fort Myers, Fla.; Peggy Rodriguez, the local coordinator for donations; and Father Inna (Ignatius) Reddy Yeruva, a local missionary, the trailer was unloaded in a couple of hours.

Two weeks after Irma's strike, FEMA was just starting to set up temporary, local resources. Privatized charity assistance like that of the Medical Missionaries was essential toward helping the poor of Immokalee obtain basic necessities and begin to rebuild their lives.

Dirr has traveled with Medical Missionaries several times a year to developing nations. "The people certainly needed help," he said, adding that people often think of international missions first. 

However, "even in the United States, people truly need the type of help we provide,” Dirr said. 

Currently, Medical Missionaries is trying to find ways to send supplies to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed the country’s infrastructure and decimated homes and lives. 

Henson is a freelance writer from Greensboro, N.C.

 

How to help

 

Go to medmissionaries.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017