South Florida volunteers set up community supply center ahead of Hurricane Dorian

In Liberty City, community volunteers gathered in a school office Thursday to make plans to take care of Miami’s most vulnerable communities in case South Florida feels Hurricane Dorian’s impacts.

People were stocking shelves with bars of soap, hygiene products, baby powder and moist wipes. Home Depot delivered charcoal grills. More supplies stockpiled in a warehouse started to arrive.

Valencia Gunder, founder of nonprofit Make the Homeless Smile, was leading the growing team in organizing a space at the Dr. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall Social and Economic Institute, 5120 NW 24th Ave. Around this time two years ago, after the outer bands of Hurricane Irma swept Miami, Gunder was maxing out her credit cards to scoop up food and other essentials wherever she could find them. She dragged the grill from her backyard to Miami’s most under-served communities in Liberty City, Overtown, Florida City, Hialeah and elsewhere.

Gunder called her roving disaster response team the “Community Emergency Operations Center,” adapting the name local governments give their command centers during hurricanes. Through her connections with various South Florida nonprofit groups and word-of-mouth, Gunder pulled together 500 volunteers, who gathered food and supplies to serve about 23,000 people after Irma.

Now, as Dorian approaches Florida’s east coast, Gunder’s ready to deploy a bigger operation than before. Donors gave money and supplies before hurricane season. Volunteers started stepping up in the middle of the week.

“Here at the [Community Emergency Operations Center], we believe that your first responder is your neighbor,” she told the Miami Herald.

Gunder and her volunteers stand ready to respond after a storm passes. Teams would take grills and supplies out to prearranged neighborhood centers — Family Action Network Movement (FANM) in Little Haiti, the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale, the Arts and Recreation Center (ARC) in Opa-locka, and others — to prepare food and distribute goods. Groups would also go deeper into neighborhoods to set up impromptu barbecues, check on residents and assess the situation.

Some of South Florida’s most at-risk communities, from South Florida’s undocumented community to the working poor, can’t afford storm preparations that others take for granted. Families living paycheck to paycheck, Gunder said, might not have the means to buy a few hundred dollars’ worth of supplies needed to ride out a storm and its aftermath, especially at the end of the month.

“Individuals who may just be strapped for cash because it’s the end of the month and their checks haven’t come yet,” she said.

The team will go wherever help is needed. Last time, volunteers lugged bags of ice up multiple flights of stairs in Miami Beach apartment buildings to help seniors.

“Inequity doesn’t have a ZIP code,” Gunder said.

Larger agencies have noted the importance of the group’s planned on-the-ground presence — Gunder has direct lines to the Miami-Dade County emergency operations center and the Red Cross to share important information in the wake of the storm.

Donors can give here: The group will be collecting donations through Sunday. Teams will start distributing supplies after the storm passes.

Volunteers can go to two locations to offer help: 5120 NW 24th Ave., in Miami, and the Old Dillard Museum, 1009 NW Fourth St., in Fort Lauderdale.

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