Coworker Helps Lead Recovery Effort in Kentucky

Posted: 11/22/2010

Glenmary Pastoral Coordinator Michele Bertot

On May 1 and 2, creek floods swept through parts of Lewis County, Ky., destroying some people's homes, forcing others out of theirs, and disrupting residents' lives. The county was declared a national disaster area. Then on July 21, floodwaters hit again, mostly in a different area of the county-but some property, like the Glenmary Farm, was affected by both.

Lewis County, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is also home to Glenmary's Holy Redeemer mission in Vanceburg, a 25-family mission in a county whose population is less than 1 percent Catholic.

"This has been the biggest crisis since I've been here," says Michele Bertot, the mission's pastoral coordinator since 2006. The last time floods struck the area was in 2000. Any disaster is especially devastating since the county has such limited economic resources, she says.

Local church ministers, civic officials, community members, outside volunteers and charitable organizations have all worked together to help those in need. And Michele, the Catholic leader, and her husband, Ted, have become the point persons for recovery efforts.

"Our ministerial association had an emergency meeting after the first flood to make plans," says Michele. As treasurer for this group and welfare secretary for the local Salvation Army unit, she already had a key role in dealing with everyday problems brought to her by those in need.

"Michele is the trusted contact person in our community when people need extra help," says Dr. Howard Wilson, Vanceburg's First Baptist Church pastor, ministerial association president and vice chair of the Salvation Army unit. "We send people in need to her and she decides how to help-either by paying for needed items or giving them vouchers. She is totally ecumenical and fair." Michele's role became even more critical this past summer.

"What I and other ministers did right after the May flood was distribute Salvation Army ‘cleanout' kits to flood victims," Michele says. "It gave us a chance to talk to them and recommend applying for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) assistance. We also used the 911 call list." FEMA and Red Cross workers were visiting people, too.

In early May Michele contacted Bill Jones, director of the Diocese of Covington's Catholic Charities office, about obtaining funds for victims. "What impressed me," Bill says, "was that Michele was already working with a coalition. Her application gave all the details. We told Catholic Charities USA that we absolutely trusted this person. So it was easy to secure a $10,000 grant for Lewis County."

Ever since then, Michele and Ted have continued to visit, revisit and minister to people. "We've had to make decisions about who needed what help," says Michele. "Ted is the record keeper-he keeps me organized!

"We also have met with Dr. Wilson and other ministers to review how things are going. Our main goals are to help people get back to normal living and look out for those who have ‘fallen through the cracks,'" she says.

Bill Jones adds he's "amazed at how efficiently the grant money has been used."

In early June the county formed a long-range disaster committee. "When the July flood came, we were more prepared," says Michele.

After that second flood, Michele gave a mission talk at a Covington parish that prompted an individual to send $1,000 for flood relief. And Resurrection Church in Canton, Mich., a prospective adopting parish for Holy Redeemer, also donated $1,000.

Two Catholic volunteer groups from Pennsylvania-high school kids and young adults-on well-timed mission trips to Holy Redeemer contributed greatly during the summer, too. Both helped with cleanup, while the adults also rebuilt a bridge and operated a Salvation Army canteen to feed those in need, with meals provided by community members.

"Since the first flood, everybody has worked together to help," Michele says, "and we were also very thankful for the generosity of people outside our community." Mission members were largely untouched by the floods, and they've helped in many ways including prayer, cleanup and meal preparation.

She points out that a crucial part of her ministry has been to sit with flood victims and let them talk. "They need to tell their stories before they can move forward. I've prayed with people, talked about loss and grief, and hopefully given them some closure and hope."

A Holy Redeemer parishioner told Michele that non-Catholic community members have commented on how the local Catholic church was making a difference. Just one example of Michele and Ted's impact: A flood victim cried after they helped her. According to the woman, she didn't have a good opinion of churches in general. "But she said she had to rethink her feelings after interacting with us because we were so kind to her," Michele says.

"Michele and Ted are really a calming force," says Dr. Wilson. "They've worked tirelessly. They are also very good at building connections with people and are very well accepted. Glenmary should be proud of them."

This article appeared in the November 2010 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter and the Autumn 2010 issue of Home Mission News.