Megan Rose: Better Together Responds to Hurricane Ian

Recently, Philanthropy Roundtable sat down with Megan Rose, CEO of Better Together, an organization that supports struggling parents, keeps children out of foster care and ultimately reunites families. In the second part of a two-part series, Rose explains how the organization, which is based in Naples, Florida, has been on the ground to help families devastated by Hurricane Ian, which struck the state in late September.

Q: What has recovery been like, and how have your clients been impacted?

The aftermath of Hurricane Ian is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In a matter of hours, life as Floridians knew it was washed away. The storm left most homes destroyed or uninhabitable. These families work hard, and they barely made ends meet before the storm. The costs of starting over, particularly for those without friends or family to help, are unthinkable.

The tragedy has presented opportunities for us to serve. We are focusing on Suncoast Estates, Harlem Heights, Pine Island and a few other neighborhoods whose residents are not getting the help they desperately need. We are providing first responders with child care and “adopting” families with children who need support but won’t ask for it — like the single mom who is working overtime as a nurse, has small children, lives in a damaged home and is barely keeping it together. 

We’re also supporting our elderly neighbors who are lonely, scared and overwhelmed, assisting with efforts to rebuild infrastructure and community. We are working to secure funds that will help repair small churches, like Suncoast First Baptist Church, which has storm damage but no money to pay its bills. Amid their own struggles, members of this congregation have been generous in letting our team use their facility, and their hospitality has brought our programs to life in that community.

Q: How has private philanthropy helped propel your innovative response to this storm?

We are 100% privately funded, which gives us the flexibility to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and needs on the ground. While drive-by distribution centers have provided relief to some people, we are offering help to families who don’t have the means to travel to those locations or need things these centers can’t provide. We’ve created a whole new model of care to bring supplies and support directly to these families.

To be more specific, we are going door-to-door and asking each individual family, “What do you need?” No two answers are the same. One family might need mosquito nets and cough syrup, while the family next door needs child care and help tarping their roof before the next rain. Their problems are urgent and often require creative solutions. That’s local philanthropy in action: see a problem, solve a problem.

Q: Please describe the response of civil society more generally — volunteers, faith communities, nonprofits and others — to the hurricane.

Our volunteers have knocked on more than 10,000 doors in areas of high need. We have given out more than $120,000 of essential supplies and tarped up 442 homes.

We are working closely with local and state governments, including Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) Secretary Shevaun Harris, who personally walked the streets with us to help families. It’s been a true team effort. When I called Shevaun about the critical condition of Suncoast Estates, she delivered pallets of supplies to us within 24 hours. Days later, DCF called our staff about urgent needs on Pine Island and we deployed volunteers to help them.

Churches from North Carolina to Ocala, Florida are driving donated items to us in trucks. More than 1,000 volunteers have distributed those items directly to families in areas of critical need. Local businesses are also donating meals, supplies and portions of their own profits. We’ve received support from radio stations, moms’ groups, child development centers, mobile health services, other local charities, you name it.

Q: Do you have an example of a family you’ve helped?

One woman, Jacqueline, lived in a brutally storm-damaged mobile home with her daughter and three grandchildren. There are now holes in the walls of the trailer with mold growing on them, no power, no AC and no cell phone service. 

On our first visit to their home, all three children looked like they had chickenpox, but the spots were from mosquitoes feasting on them at night. We brought apples, and the children ate them up like candy. Many families don’t eat for days at a time because they don’t have the means to travel to a disaster relief distribution center. They are stranded and forgotten. 

Even if Jacqueline’s family could somehow get to a distribution center, it wouldn’t have most of the things she needs right now. It doesn’t offer bug spray or child care or help with tarping up their home before the next rain. We promised to come back, and we did. 

We returned with mosquito netting, ointments, bug spray, cough syrup, thermometers, pull-ups, stuffed animals and dolls, sheets, toddler beds, first-aid kits, shoes, car seats, Pack ’n Plays, bicycles, food, water, clothing and more. 

Their gratitude brought us to tears.

“You came back,” Jacqueline said. She couldn’t believe it.

Q: What does the disaster response timeline look like? And which types of resources will you most need over the next six months to two years?

We are serving areas where homes are uninhabitable and families feel forgotten by the world. We will keep coming back until they don’t need us anymore. Our top three priorities are safety, security and relationships.

Right now, we are making sure everyone has a safe place to live and the basic necessities — food, water, medicine, beds, clothes, formula, diapers and shoes. We are tarping up and repairing homes that can be saved, while families who lost everything are staying with our screened and trained volunteer host families. Since thousands of people lost jobs overnight, our church partners are holding job fairs to help people get back on their feet and keep money coming in the door.

As we serve these families, relationships form. Volunteers are exchanging phone numbers with families, and from that point, that family is not alone. Whether it’s now or five years from now, we will be there for support, mentorship, emergency babysitting, anything they need — and the need is huge in these areas. We are looking to build capacity for our person-to-person outreach efforts. We need more volunteers, more people willing to invest personally in the lives of their neighbors. Community is our most precious resource.

Better Together is included in Philanthropy Roundtable’s Opportunity Playbook, where you can find more information about their impact and programming. If you are interested in helping to accelerate this organization’s impact, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director  Esther Larson.

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