Seventy-six-year-old cancer survivor Shepard Adams and his wife, Gracelyn, age 69, were the first to raise their hands to volunteer when the Amite Louisiana Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was called upon to serve in Hurricane Michael cleanup efforts in Florida. When she didn’t see hands immediately go up amongst the gathering of some of the older couples, Gracelyn said to herself, “Could we do it next year? Well, better do it while we are able and can.” The Amite couple was not alone as they joined over 2,700 Church volunteers from five different states traveling to Florida weekly since the storm hit. Volunteers are hauling debris, chopping up large trees, and tarping damaged roofs.
“Everybody’s some kinda old,” Gracelyn rationalized. “My husband thinks he’s getting old, but I heard about another volunteer having his 81st birthday, so we’re lads and lasses compared to that!” remarked Gracelyn. Although the Adams didn’t get on rooftops or chainsaw, they picked up branches and hauled wheelbarrows full of debris. Along with some of the 100 volunteers from the Slidell Louisiana Stake, the Adams couple was able to assist survivors including Maureen Sexton, an elderly widow from England, who had eleven trees down on her property. Sexton’s son was exhausted from trying to do all the work himself and when those workers in the yellow Helping Hands shirts showed up, she declared, “It was a blessing! I’m 85 years old and I am still here for a reason!”
An abandoned Panama City airfield was the site of hundreds of tents filled with over 1,000 volunteers who all brought their own water, food, chainsaws, tools, gloves, and even heavy machinery to get the job done. Gracelyn humorously related how on the first night she got lost in the dark on the way back to her tent from the portable toilets. “I had to sit down on a slab and stay put and wait for someone I recognized to come by and find me,” she said. Someone did find her and guided her back through the sea of canvas to her own humble tent.
Shephard and Gracelyn Adams, from Loranger, Louisiana, are part of the group of volunteers from the Slidell Louisiana Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helping remove many fallen trees from 85-year-old widow Maureen Sexton’s property on Oct. 27th in Panama City, Florida.
“We’ve been through hurricanes before. It devastates people. People almost become helpless. They have their employment and other things so much to worry about,” explained Shephard who had lost his right eye to cancer and had witnessed many devastating storms in Louisiana. “We want to help them pick up where they left off and move on,” he said with determination. After a grueling weekend October 20-21, working under the Florida sun, the Adams returned for their second weekend to keep on doing everything they could to help out. Shepard related, “Last week, we came, and my wife said we had to go back, so here we are! “
The Adams also served a 72-year old widow named Diane Shipes, who had just had knee replacement surgery before the storm him. Her daughter, Sarah, said her mother returned from the rehab center that was without power and water to a home that was unrecognizable. “This looks like a different world that it used to. Trees fell on their rental property which will have to be demolished. One car was totaled by a flying trampoline hitting the windshield. Trees fell on sheds housing all their photo equipment from their photography business, but thankfully her home was spared. ”
As the Adams joined volunteers young and old from the Slidell Louisiana Stake to chop and move fallen trees, Shipes said, “I don’t even think it’s hit me yet that this is all real, but seeing all these people here today helping has been like, it’s a dream come true. Being a part of The Church of Jesus Christ has always been a blessing, and then seeing all these members come together—not only helping me, but helping all my friends in this community makes me cry. It’s a lot.”
As much as it means to Sarah Shipes and Maureen Sexton, there is still so much more to be done. The Hurricane Relief Hotline has had over 12,000 calls for help waiting to be fulfilled. More volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints will be making the trek back to Florida for several weekends to continue the work.
“I keep saying, ‘Our efforts feel like not a drop in the bucket, but a drop in the ocean!’” exclaimed Gracelyn Adams. “But by small things, big things are accomplished. Every little bit counts. Jesus could lay his hand on this and all would be in place, but it’s for us to do what we can!”