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Next Level Church Steps Up to Help Hurricane Victims

More than 150 members showed up to help on Tuesday.


The Next Level Church is...well, a church. But if you had walked into its Plantation Road worship hall on Tuesday you might well think you had walked straight into a Red Cross operations center.

There is a volunteer check in, a makeshift command center where a church member is answering an Irma recovery hotline and multiple white boards upon which are sticky notes, color coded and divided up by region. Pink: clean up and restoration. Blue: specialized labor, such as tree work or medical care. Orange: spiritual support, wellness checks, water. Yellow: flood zone supplies, rescue, recovery.

(See also: Tim Tebow’s surprise appearance at Next Level.)

The project had started with a need to check on their own—some 3,000 to 4,000 people belong to Next Level. Founders Sarah and Matt Keller and their leadership team devised a text message system. Those who registered, about 1,200 people, would get a post-hurricane text prompting them to reply and say whether they were safe or needed help. But the church wanted to care for the entire community, not just its own. Hence the publicly distributed hotline number, the white boards, and the 150-plus people who showed up to help Tuesday morning.

“This is part of our broader mentality—our church is not just about a building. A church is people. We’re a body of believers, and the way we show the love of God is through people,” Sarah Keller says.

For all of the “it wasn’t so bad” sentiment floating around social media, Keller and Will Hutcherson, a Next Generation pastor, say many people are in dire straits, trapped by debris or water or financial constraints that limited storm supply stockpiles.

“There’s a lot of people who are just desperate and looking for help,” Hutcherson says.

Teams all day had been going out, coming in and going right back out, like the one about to dispatch to the Villas neighborhood in South Fort Myers, a community with a sizable number of older homes, older residents and lower incomes. They agree to take me along, and so I climb into Tami Tassler’s Subaru and we cautiously lead a caravan of Next Level workers across signal-less intersections and into the neighborhood.

When we find the place the team had left off, we park and climb into Ryan White’s pickup truck where the bed is packed with bottled water.

“Water! Agua!” Shout Tassler and fellow volunteers Stephanie Rodriguez, Amy Fitzgerald and Amy’s 9-year-old daughter, Jasmine.

“Yes, please,” a man in a black T-shirt stops clearing his yard and accepts a gallon. “My friend over there needs some too.” White hurries a jug across the street.

A couple of kids on bikes catch wind of the distribution. “You’re not gonna crash, right?” asks Fitzgerald, helping a boy balance a case on his handlebars. He grins, assures her he’s fine, and pedals off quickly toward home.

The group, which includes several men in another car, stop at the home of Emelina and Sarbelio Hernandez. Along with their son, the couple had been laboring since Monday to clear their battered yard. The tree limbs, proof of their efforts, were already stacked nearly chest high. Two leaning avocado trees had yet to come down.

“Can we stop here?” asks Chuch Whiteside, a Next Level pastor. The couple were his aunt and uncle, ages 78 and 80, respectively.

“My body can’t take anymore,” says Emelina Hernandez, glad for the relief. Her house had survived hurricanes Charley and Wilma, and she’d felt confident in staying through Irma.

“We just prayed and prayed and prayed. And I prayed for that mango tree there,” she says, nodding toward one treacherously close to the house, “and that’s the only one left standing.”

Many of the volunteers would go home to face challenges similar to the Hernandez’s cleaning project, but to them, helping those more in need was paramount.

“You see so many people coming together. It may seem the world is crazy and frustrating right now, but we’re coming through for each other,” says Tassler.

“Regardless of what you believe in, helping the community is the right thing to do,” says White, recalling a 91-year-old man he had assisted the day before. “It can be the littlest thing in the world, but it’s awesome.”

The church intends to keep up its efforts this week. If you want to get involved, check its Facebook page for information on its needs.


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