How a Catholic college sheltered the poor from Irma

At Ave Maria University in Florida, students and staff reached out into the community

Hurricane Irma evacuees at the Thomas Student Union. Photo courtesy of Ave Maria University.
Our Lady of Guadalupe stands intact. Photo courtesy of Ave Maria University.

As the first news hit southern Florida that Irma might turn her record-breaking force their way, Ave Maria University, a Catholic liberal arts university east of Naples, Florida, posted on Facebook:

“The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

These words from Pope Benedict XVI have been lived out by the administration, staff, and students of Ave Maria during the hurricane crisis.

Ave Maria University was moved from Michigan to its current, tropical location in southwestern Florida in 2007. It is surrounded by the town of Ave Maria, a beautiful, planned community full of families, professors, and people who interact with and support the vibrant academic community. At its center is a modern spin on a Gothic cathedral, pointing the viewer’s eyes heavenward.

However, much of the central tip of Florida looks very different than the manicured paths and hurricane-proof dorms looming beyond quaint, tile-roofed bungalows. Murky swamps and low-income mobile-home parks populated by immigrant farmhands dot the landscape a little east of the coast between Naples and Fort Myers.

A game of checkers with Immokalee children. Photo courtesy of Ave Maria University.

The university has made a concerted effort to help their students understand the importance of reaching out to the community around them, especially within the town of Immokalee. Through the Mother Teresa Project, students regularly assist with Habitat for Humanity, childcare, tutoring and mentoring, a soccer program, and FIAT youth and young adult ministry for the Hispanic population in Immokalee.

As Hurricane Irma turned and the west coast of Florida anticipated being firmly in the path of the storm, Ave Maria prepared for its students and families on campus. Some students evacuated to be with family during the crisis, but several hundred stayed behind. The administration worked around the clock to stash water and food, communicate with parents and residents about safety measures, and prepare backup generators.

Their impoverished neighbors were not forgotten in the hustle and bustle. A true example of Catholic charity in action, Ave Maria became a center of protection and care.

On Thursday (Sept. 7), when classes had already been canceled, Ave Maria students drove to Immokalee to help prepare homes for the storm by boarding up windows and securing possessions. Over the weekend, around 400 people from surrounding mobile-home parks found a safe haven in Ave Maria’s large gymnasium. Families with small children and the elderly were given precedence with some others sent to nearby facilities for shelter.

Fr. Cory Mayer sheltered 50 more people in the church on campus. And the student union was opened to emergency and law enforcement personnel so they could have a secure home base from which to operate.

Saturday morning (Sept. 9), as the university prepared its last Mass and hot meals before the storm arrived, the sheriff’s office called and asked if they could take 10 more refugees. A group of elderly Haitians, including one who was blind, had been abandoned by their caregivers in a nearby apartment block for residents 55 and older. The university quickly opened their model residence homes to these disoriented and isolated seniors.

Hurricane Irma evacuees. Photo courtesy of Ave Maria University.

Mark O’Keefe is a senior this year. He had a chance to evacuate before Irma, but at the last moment, he chose to stay. He explained that on the first night that the Immokaleen refugees arrived, he and friends were grabbed by Fr. Bob Garrity as they finished night prayer. The priest told them that 200 families just arrived and they could use some help.

“Myself and about eight other guys walked down and we were blown away to find our gym full of worried parents and excited kids, all sleeping on the floors, all apprehensive for the coming storm,” said O’Keefe. “Some of us went back for blankets for the people while myself and a few others sat in the middle of the floor and sang along to my guitar. … Anything popular enough to bridge the language gap of the kids that crowded around was fair game, so we got a variety! We sat taking their requests for about an hour while the rest of our team ushered in blankets and pillows from the dorms and carried the people’s luggage from the buses.”

Even the students who evacuated the campus felt connected to the faith-filled efforts of their peers.

Nora Mulhern, a senior psychology major, drove to a friend’s cabin in the Georgia mountains with a caravan of four cars, 14 students, and a load of extra gas tanks, food, water, and camping supplies.

“We have been praying so hard for everyone at Ave,” Mulhern said. “Through the day, we’re praying [the] Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, and the Divine Mercy chaplet. We have gone to daily adoration and Mass. And we offered a day of fasting for our university.”

After leading faith formation for the FIAT program in Immokalee last year, she said it was hard to leave the active work of helping those families to her friends who stayed at the university. However, she’s confident that prayer is an effective and necessary way of helping, too.

Parents of students back on campus were worried but gratified by the university’s dedication toward forming their students’ hearts and character through this storm while providing carefully for their physical needs.

Before Hurricane Irma arrived, students filled sandbags. Photo courtesy of Ave Maria University.

Frances Van de Voorde has had three of her seven children attend the school, and her son and daughter-in-law (also an Ave Maria grad) have lived and worked in the town there.

“I think the best thing that this storm shows about Ave is that it is a school where faith and life intersect to allow their students to take ownership of their faith and be able to witness to it in a normal, ordinary, and yet extraordinary way,” said Van de Voorde. “We are happy to hear that Ave has weathered the storm and the kids are ready to help their neighbors!”

In Medieval Europe, Catholic monasteries used to serve as the centers of learning, spirituality, culture, and protection for the surrounding peasants. During times of invasion, they would bring the rural farmers and tradesmen into their walls and minister to their needs. Ave Maria University is carrying on this inspiring Catholic tradition by looking for opportunities to love their neighbors, even while facing unknown odds and discomfort from cramped quarters.

As images and stories filter in from the power-deprived pockets of southern Florida, it is clear that Ave Maria University showed great foresight and compassion in their preparations and hospitality. The major buildings of the university were essentially unharmed. The university sustained some flooding and downed trees. Irma turned the university’s newly-installed football stadium seating into a tangled mess on a field. There are the discomforts of sporadic air conditioning, lack of communication to family, and repetitive sandwich meals. But many of their neighbors in Immokalee suffered far worse damage, and some lost everything. Footage from Immokalee shows missing roofs and walls, flooding, and battered mobile-home siding, plus looting. It will be a difficult recovery.

A packed 3 p.m. Mass on Sept. 11 in a cafeteria. Photo courtesy of Ave Maria University.

Erin Foushee was one of the first Ave Maria graduates from the new Florida campus in 2009 and weathered Hurricane Katrina in the dorms. Now, as a wife and mother, she has been watching the reports from Ave Maria with interest and prayer. She shared, “Since Ave Maria’s inception, service has been at the core of the university’s identity. In the face of Irma, it’s been beautiful to witness the students focusing on addressing the needs of the poor.”

In a time of social unrest, when many in our country question if people from various economic and racial backgrounds can truly act as equals, O’Keefe sees a light of hope.

He said, “Probably the coolest part of all of this was how the normal cultural differences faded away in the face of catastrophe. When Ave kids walk into Immokalee … we are clear outsiders, and there is a clear distinction between the locals and the students getting McDonald’s. All of that vanished despite the difference in language and culture. It didn’t matter who you were, because no matter what, you were going to face that hurricane. When it is humans versus a foe on the scale of Irma, humanity teams up. All differences and even hostilities are laid aside for a common cause, and ‘team mankind’ works as one.”

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