Overcoming a crisis: How United Way gives people hope during disasters

A once peaceful community can be upended by circumstances that are completely out of their control. The severe flooding last year decimated huge parts of the St. Louis region. Countless people suffered substantial damage to their homes, cars, and other valuable possessions.

United Way prioritizes community and crisis response because we recognize how devastating a man-made or natural disaster can be. That is why we are intentional about using our 211 helpline and navigation center as a disaster intake hotline during unprecedented crises. We also partner with various government agencies and nonprofit organizations that work together to help people during times of disaster.

The St. Louis region has had to endure a lot of extreme weather over the years and each time, United Way’s disaster recovery efforts were expedient and effective.

The devastation from last year’s flooding seemed overwhelming, but as always, United Way got to work, working hard to find solutions and make use of our valuable resources and partnerships. One of the nonprofit organizations that were instrumental throughout this process was United Way partner agency, R3 Development.

R3 focuses on enriching the lives of local people in various ways, and one of their focus areas is revitalizing communities, which proved to be especially important during this crucial period. R3’s Director of Programs and Construction Services, Andrew Panek said that through diligence and comradery they’ve built with the community over time, R3 stands ready to provide aid and support to local people in need during times of disaster.

“We’re uniquely positioned in the East St. Louis community to be able to have boots on the ground pretty quickly when something happens,” said Andrew. “We have a good relationship with the community by and large, and we’re empathetic to what they go through, we understand the community.”

For one resident, R3’s empathy and effectiveness proved to be vital after the flooding nearly erased decades worth of memories.

Help thy neighbor

Zenda lived in a home in East St. Louis for almost her entire life, just as her parents and grandparents did. Her grandfather was stationed there by the military several decades ago and since then, three generations of his family went on to live in the home.

Zenda and her parents moved out of the house once Zenda grew up, but after her grandparents passed away, she decided to move herself and her children back in because of how meaningful the house was to her family. Years of special memories had been made in that house and she didn’t want to sell it.

After moving back in, she began making several renovations to the house in hopes of making it last for perhaps the next several decades, but in 2022, those hopes were threatened.

On a humid summer night in July, rain began to pour down throughout the East St. Louis region. After hours of rain, Zenda and her children began to notice a little bit of water creeping into their basement, but she shrugged it off. Small amounts of water occasionally came into the basement when it rained because of a gutter issue, but it was usually no big deal.

The rain persisted throughout the night, and the next morning when Zenda went to check on the basement, the totality of the devastation began to set in.

24 inches of water filled their basement.

Decades worth of memories such as family photos, heirlooms, and other valuable keepsakes were all destroyed. Additionally, mold and mildew pervaded the basement, making the entire house uninhabitable. Despite the devastation she saw, Zenda didn’t fret, her faith and spirituality gave her the peace of mind she needed.

“I’m very spiritual, and my first thought was, ‘God, I trust you,’” said Zenda. “It wasn’t as bad as some of things I was seeing on social media where the flooding was so bad that people lost everything. I began to pray and thank God that it wasn’t worse.”

After processing the devastating impacts of the flood, Zenda reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who connected her with R3 Development. From the very beginning, she knew R3 was an organization she could trust.

“They were absolutely amazing, they were very gracious with making sure my kids and I had our needs met,” said Zenda. “They came in, looked at things, and immediately knew what to do, they really went above and beyond.”

Based on the severity of the damage done to Zenda’s basement, R3 quickly mobilized to restore it and make it safe for her and her children to occupy. R3 partnered with United Way, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), and a church group called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to help with this process.

They began meeting to strategize a way to help Zenda and other people in her situation. After formulating a plan for long-term recovery repairs, they spent the next several months removing all the damage, treating the mold, cleaning and disinfecting, and making all the proper repairs to make her basement and home livable again. After all the work was complete, her basement looked as good as new. R3 was proud to be able to help another neighbor in need.

“It was a gratifying moment for me personally; to see people and organizations come together in a completely altruistic way to serve someone in need,” said Andrew. “The entire experience has been humbling and gratifying. I look forward to how we can continue to support the community with disaster preparedness and recovery in the future.”

A year later, Zenda and her children recently moved back into their home and Zenda said they are doing well in their recovery process. As she looks back on everything that happened, she is thankful for God leading her to R3 that was able to support her during a time of crisis and despair.

“I am honored and overjoyed by what R3 was able to do for me,” said Zenda. “I just thank God for the people he placed in my life during a time of need.”

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Rodney Humphries
Rodney Humphries

Rodney Humphries is the Communications Specialist for United Way of Greater St. Louis and a proud graduate of Webster University where he developed his passion for writing. In college, he combined his love for writing and sports, serving as the primary sports writer for his school newspaper while also developing his own sports blog. After graduating, he continued his love for writing as he served as a freelance writer for various publications. Rodney continues to be a fan of Webster athletics, you will often see him sitting courtside at a lot of their basketball games.