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Church Stake in California Wins Award for Efforts After Flooding

Porterville California Stake is named a state district’s nonprofit of the year for Springville flooding response through JustServe

A hand-painted cardboard sign asks people who are coming to look at the flooding damage to grab a shovel and help clean up in Springville, California, March 25, 2023. Photo by Mimi Schuler, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

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By Mary Richards, Church News

An “atmospheric river” hit Springville, California, in the San Joaquin Valley on March 10 — washing away homes and filling others with water and mud. In the days and weeks following, JustServe volunteers and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded in huge numbers to help.

Because of those efforts, the Porterville California Stake was named Nonprofit of the Year for the 33rd Assembly District of California at the state capitol on June 7.

State Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Porterville) said when the community was being devastated by flooding, the Church worked with first responders to rescue victims and to repair much of the damage.

“Because of their bravery and generosity, I am honored to introduce an Assembly Resolution to them for their great work. Their humanitarian efforts are an inspiration to us all, and I thank them for their ongoing service to our communities,” he said.

Stake President Kelley Ivancovich said it was a wonderful blessing to help.

“It was devastating to see the damage that was done by the heavy rains to many peoples’ homes and properties,” Ivancovich said. “We were grateful as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and JustServe to participate with other faith-building churches and community organizations in these relief service efforts.”

California Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Porterville) and JustServe specialist Mimi Schuler of the Porterville California Stake hold the Assembly Resolution naming the stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a California NonProfit of the Year in Sacramento, California, on June 7, 2023. Photo by Janet Enquist Uresti, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

The Flooding in Springville

Springville is a little community of less than 1,000 people living along the Tule River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The March 10 torrential rains flooded the town — and hundreds of homes were lost or severely damaged by the raging river.

JustServe specialist Mimi Schuler said the small unincorporated town did not have immediate access to emergency services that larger cities have. But the faith community moved quickly to help.

“When disaster strikes, it’s imperative that a network of resources are on hand and that you know who to call for help,” Schuler said.

She spoke with Melissa Cohea from the First Baptist Church and learned how Cohea had spent hours walking from door to door checking on individuals and recording damages. Schuler asked how the Church of Jesus Christ could help them.

Flood damage at a home in Springville, California, is pictured on March 23, 2023. In preparation for the day of service on March 25, JustServe specialists visited families on Tule Drive to assess damages and make a plan. Photo by Mimi Schuler, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

“Using JustServe, we were able to collaborate and quickly build a robust project that would include several local churches and non-profit groups,” Schuler said.

Janet Enquist Uresti, the Porterville stake communications director, said the images of the homes and bridges being washed away and power lines coming down were astonishing and scary.

“I remember feeling helpless and unsure of how I could help,” she said. But ministering brothers and sisters reached out to their families and neighbors. And service projects through JustServe provided a way to help.

“[Schuler] helped quickly and efficiently plan two large and impactful days of service on March 25 and April 15,” Uresti said. “Members from the neighboring Visalia California Stake came to help as well as members of other faiths, nonprofits, businesses and Springville School.”

More than 400 volunteers served — 50 from the community and 350 from the Church.

The Volunteer Response

During the two service days, people helped muck the mud out of the homes, remove logs and timber and other debris that came downstream. Volunteers cleaned yards, cut down trees, and removed damaged buildings, roofs, decks and more.

Church volunteers first stopped by River Island Country Club to sign in and pick up yellow Helping Hands T-shirts with the full name of the Church across the front.

Uresti saw a man she did not recognize pick up a shirt. He told her he was Baptist, but he was proud to wear the shirt because he was there to serve Jesus Christ.

Tule Drive appeared as a sea of yellow shirts as the work was being done, said Schuler.

“It was a beautiful sight to see a group of people not defined by race or gender or age, or religion, but rather a people of faith who believe in neighborly love and that giving is still better than receiving, and showing compassion is still the greatest gift we can give to one another,” she said.

Helping Hands volunteers from the Lindsay Ward (Spanish) in the Porterville California Stake join in a JustServe project to clean up flooding debris in Springville, California, April 15, 2023. Photo by Mimi Schuler, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

Uresti described some of the work.

“I saw missionaries using large sledge hammers to help take a deck off of a home. I saw high councilmen digging mud out of the basement of a home. I saw young children carrying trash away from homes. I saw men using their trucks and trailers to haul debris off to county dumps,” she said.

And everyone was in good spirits.

“I saw young mothers, aunts and grandmothers work hard in numerous tasks and be a shining example of service to their children, nieces and nephews and grandchildren. Men cut up large trees and helped with small repairs,” Uresti continued. “We were there with the sole purpose of uplifting spirits and serving our Savior and His children.”

A family from the community joins in a JustServe project to help clean up homes affected by flooding in Springville, California, March 25, 2023. Photo by Mimi Schuler, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

Building Relationships and Growing JustServe

The Porterville stake’s relationship with the Baptist church started during the global pandemic. The Church sent a food truck to Porterville to help families experiencing food insecurities. Schuler said the donation provided an opportunity to build a relationship between the JustServe coordinators and the leaders of other local congregations.

“As we came together to feed our community, a bond of trust grew between us that eventually closed the gaps on our concerns about our differences as we focused on what we share in common: our love for Jesus Christ and serving people,” she said.

Uresti was given the stake communications calling less than a year ago. She has since interviewed individuals, written stories, taken pictures, made videos and created social media posts about the Church and JustServe in the Porterville area — working hand in hand with Schuler.

“I have seen how a program developed by the Church can bless not only the lives of those within our community and our stakes and wards, but also my own life,” Uresti said. She said she has found her place of worth as she uses her skills and talents in her calling.

When she got the phone call about the award for Nonprofit of the Year, she was surprised and honored.

“I think this award is amazing to me because it made our efforts as a stake visible to the public and allowed us to partner with others and help them shine as much as we do in receiving it,” Uresti said.

Schuler said efforts will continue for a while to help Springville recover. But the award and resolution from the California Assembly memorializes a collaborative effort well done.

“The exposure to JustServe and the Church has been very positive,” Schuler said.

She hopes the positive momentum will help in the development of high school JustServe clubs this summer. And she is looking forward to expanding cooperative interfaith work in future projects.

President Ivancovich said everyone working together made a difference in people’s lives.

“There were many new friends made through these volunteer service projects. Our community became stronger because of volunteers who wanted to help,” he said.

Youth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don yellow Helping Hands t-shirts and hold a JustServe banner during a large service project cleaning up after flooding in Springville, California, March 25, 2023. Photo by Mimi Schuler, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

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