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Carrying comfort to Surfside

Churches and ministries offer help and healing to first responders and families of victims in the Surfside, Fla., condo collapse

Search and rescue personnel participate in a memorial to the victims of Champlain Towers South. Jose A Iglesias/Getty Images

Carrying comfort to Surfside

Father Juan Sosa pastors St. Joseph Catholic Church less than half a mile from Champlain Towers South, the condominium that collapsed on June 24 in Surfside, Fla. In 1992, Sosa pastored a church in Kendall, 20 miles north of where Hurricane Andrew made landfall, razing whole neighborhoods. But that Category 5 storm didn’t approach what he has faced in recent weeks, he says: “People lost homes, but nothing compared to so many people dying.”

As of mid-July, Sosa had presided over three funerals for eight people associated with his congregation who died in the collapse, including a family of four and a family of three. A funeral for a married couple was scheduled for later that week. “We have evolved from shock to grief,” says Sosa. The death toll, at 98, represents nearly 2 percent of Surfside’s official population.

St. Joseph and other churches and Christian organizations are among the groups helping victims’ families and first responders recover after the Champlain Towers disaster. While Sosa and area pastors minister within their congregations, others have taken to the streets to offer comfort, and organizations like the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities offered services at the Family Assistance Center established in Surfside.

The international backgrounds of many residents of the towers brought an unusual dimension to the local tragedy. Staffers from Catholic Charities met individuals who flew in from South America and Europe seeking information about loved ones. Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Miami, said crisis counseling formed a significant portion of the agency’s work.

At CASA Church, less than half a mile north of the Champlain Towers, staff member Yoana Lotta recalls how church leaders gathered the day after the tragedy, wondering how to help. They drew from resources on hand, pulling together snacks and drinks from the church cafeteria to distribute as they walked the neighborhood. They found exhausted first responders, some waking from sleeping in their trucks, who were thrilled to have a hot cup of coffee. “The small gesture really impacted them,” says Lotta.

CASA continued to organize volunteers in two five-hour shifts each day to walk the streets surrounding the secured area near the collapse site. They carried coolers and offered Gatorade, water, and snacks to police and other workers laboring full days in the hot sun.

We have evolved from shock to grief.

Lotta said CASA focused on helping the first responders, given that the community was already offering many resources to the families of victims: As of July 22, the Support Surfside Fund, established by a partnership of community foundations, had raised more than $4.5 million and distributed over $800,000 to families affected by the disaster, according to a press release. Routsis-Arroyo noted that Catholic Charities helps “fill in the cracks” and has paid expenses not covered by other agencies, such as funeral or burial costs. Sosa has also assisted donors with channeling gifts to needs for individual families.

Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) sent a team of its K-9 Comfort Dogs to Surfside. The team—nine trained golden retrievers and their handlers mobilized from churches in six states—arrived at the Surfside memorial site the morning of July 7, hoping to connect with first responders. But they weren’t sure where they might meet them.

“It was as if God just said, ‘I’ll take care of that,’” recalls Bonnie Fear, LCC’s crisis response coordinator. During a shift change, search and rescue crew members saw the dogs and, with smiles on their faces, made a beeline for them across a busy street. “Some cried, some laughed. We just prayed with them. They definitely wanted prayer,” says Fear.

Later that day, officials announced the site would transition to a recovery operation—any hope of finding survivors was gone. The K-9 team remained an encouraging presence over the next five days. LCC also provided markers to place at the memorial with the name of each victim—a white post topped by a blue heart, displaying the text of Psalm 34:18 (“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”)

Long-term support remains critical, as Routsis-Arroyo estimates at least 100 families displaced by the building’s destruction will need housing—hard to find in Miami. Officials have also evacuated other local buildings after conducting structural inspections prompted by the tragedy. One such building housed primarily low-income elderly residents. Catholic Charities is helping with housing case management, security deposits, and connections with landlords.

As the impact of the tragedy sinks in, Lotta of CASA Church feels the atmosphere in the community is shifting. “It’s more like a remembrance,” she says. “The pain will always be there.”

Laura G. Singleton

Laura is a WORLD correspondent and a World Journalism Institute graduate. She resides in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.


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