When Angela and Michael Williams woke up last Sunday, Feb. 14, to snow and bitter cold in the forecast, they knew what they needed to do. So for the next week, they ran an ad hoc disaster shelter out of the fellowship hall at St. Paul's Anglican Church in downtown Gainesville, offering food and warmth to dozens of local residents and even a driver whose car broke down on I-35.
“Father [Jeff] Stubbs said if you can get people to help, if you can get the resources and everything, then you can do it,” Angela Williams said Friday in between relaying requests for food and water. “So we reached out to Regina, I want to say about 8 o'clock, and by 11:30 [a.m.] we had everything we needed – the volunteers at least for the first night, food, supplies, everything.”
Regina Camberos, moderator of a local Facebook group dedicated to “random acts of kindness,” published requests for whatever the Williamses needed for the shelter, and group members made sure they were fulfilled, often within minutes, Angela said.
Ultimately, more than 30 volunteers helped staff the church's shelter and people from as far away as Nebraska supplied donations of food, water and other supplies. St. Paul's sheltered 50 to 75 people, Angela said, and provided food and water to about 100 more as of Friday afternoon, Feb. 19.
“If it wasn't for the community, we really wouldn't have been able to do this,” Angela said.
On Friday, she was taking down numbers to call and check with people's neighbors to find out whether water service was restored and relaying requests for food or bottled water to one of the volunteer delivery drivers who had offered to help. The Williamses' own power had gone out and their pipes froze, but they relied on a neighbor to tend to their dogs while they headed up the shelter. Camberos, too, battled loss of water while helping deliver supplies to others, she said.
Angela told about one woman who requested a meal and happened to mention it was her mother's birthday. The church bought a small cake to go with the meal and those at the shelter — volunteers and residents — signed a card, too, “so she at least can have a birthday,” Angela said.
One man who ended up at the shelter had been driving on I-35 when his car broke down. Donors got his car towed and labor arranged to fix the alternator while he warmed up at the church.
And one donor drove from Nebraska to pick up a couple pallets of bottled water in Oklahoma City and deliver it to Gainesville, Angela said. Local firefighters and a team of other volunteers lined up assembly-line style to stack it in the church, where it was made available to a number of local residents whose plumbing wasn't working.
“It was just amazing how we all came together. It was heartwarming,” Angela said of the shelter and related efforts.