To this day, Janine Ungvarsky gets anxious when she hears heavy rainfall. She was just a young girl in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes tore through eastern Pennsylvania and the raging Susquehanna River devastated the Wyoming Valley. It brought three-and-a-half feet of water into the second floor of her family’s home.
“Still, when I hear the heavy rain, I feel myself tense up,” says Ungvarsky.
In 2011, when her community again was ravaged by flooding, she knew she had to help. Fortunately, she wasn’t alone.
“The 2011 flood damaged about a third of our borough,” she says. “Our church (Trinity Episcopal Church, West Pittston) was a block away from the flood in two different directions. Nearby buildings had water that backed up from the sewers. We knew we were extremely fortunate that we had not been affected, and we knew we had parishioners who needed help.”
The question was how to give it.
“We kind of floundered at the beginning,” Ungvarsky said. “But we figured out that our charism might be that we would be there for the long term, that we were going to find ways to keep helping.”
That sense of call grew into episcopalRELIEFnepa, a mobile ministry ready to respond to disasters large and small across the region. Whether it is responding to floods—Ungvarsky says it’s a matter of when, not if, in flood-prone northeastern Pennsylvania—or fires or any other type of calamity, the ministry’s mission is to be ready to respond with tools, supplies, manpower and other resources when disaster strikes.
“We routinely go out to the scene of a fire and determine if there’s any way we can help,” Ungvarsky says. “We have grown to help with all the storms of life.
“Like after a fire, we’ve helped people move, we’ve helped them paint, whatever is needed. We had one family who lost everything in a fire recently. They had two small children and the woman was 8 months pregnant, and they were all sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, the whole family.
“We helped them get a mattress and an actual bed and made arrangements to have it delivered. We came up with the funds and a couple of us went with the truck to deliver it.”
Ungvarsky serves as program missioner of episcopalRELIEFnepa. The program, whose mission is “to be a shield in the midst of life’s storms,” has a small office and storage space at Trinity.
EpiscopalRELIEFnepa works with Episcopal churches in the region to gather and store disaster supplies such as gloves, cleaning supplies and bottled water. The program can also provide temporary heated shelter, hot meals and a place to recharge cell phones and plug in other necessary electrical equipment during power outages.
From time to time, it also offers simple meals that allow participants to get to better know their neighbors and helps them to assess unmet needs and provide pastoral care.
“We made chicken soup for Halloween and our ‘tweens and teens took it to one of the senior high rises,” Ungvarsky says. “In September we did 150 hotdog lunches in two hours. That was a volunteer group from a couple of churches in the area. I remember one gentlemen said, ‘What’s the catch?’ We said, ‘There is no catch. We know God’s love and we want you to know it, too. Plus, we want you to have a nice lunch.’”
Although the program grew out of Trinity Church, where Ungvarsky serves on the vestry, it has received tremendous support from the Diocese of Bethlehem, from individuals, from individual churches and from Episcopal Relief & Development. All of its services are provided free of charge.
“We named it episcopalRELIEFnepa because we wanted it to be something that anybody in the region could be part of, not just Trinity. Trinity has taken a leadership role, and I happen to be a lay missioner at Trinity, but this is beyond anything we can do ourselves. Our parish (which has 50 or so people in church on Sunday mornings) is too small to fund the kind of outreach that is needed.”
While the waters from the 2011 flood receded long ago, the community continues to deal with the aftermath, and offering simple communal meals and, when the opportunity arises, small gifts, episcopalRELIEFnepa keeps in touch with area residents. One fall Ungvarsky accompanied young people from Trinity as they went door-to-door in the community handing out small flowering plants and encouraging notes.
“I remember being there when a door was opened and the person said, ‘The Episcopalians are back! They still haven’t forgotten us!’ This was 18 months or maybe two years after the flood.”
Ungvarsky says the organization “tries to help people find their way back to normal and to show them God’s way,” including delivering Christmas trees and wreathes, candy eggs at Easter and flags for the Fourth of July.
“We’re always trying to find some small ways to show people we are still thinking about them. Even now there are still homes that have not been touched; people just walked away from them. There are still incomplete homes with people living there. Some people are stuck still living with maybe a plywood floor, or putting us drywall. Some people have had their home foreclosed. There is still a lot of hurting in this area and still a lot of need.”
Last winter, when the organization was handing out soup, “a woman came up the street riding a little scooter with no hat, no gloves, with shoes but no socks,” Ungvarsky says. “We flagged her down and said, ‘Come over and warm up and have some soup with us.’ We were able to send her on her way with a hat, gloves, a pair of socks, and an extra bowl of soup.”
As is the case with most outreach programs, while the benefits to the community are huge, the benefits to participants may be even greater.
“It helps us to renew and reinvigorate our zeal for our own faith,” Ungvarsky says, “and it provides a way for people to help in a number of different levels. If someone can’t stand in three feet of snow and hand out soup, they can help make the soup or make a donation.”
Prayer also is important, Ungvarsky says.
“During bad weather we spend a lot of time praying that we’re not needed!”