Backing the Bahamas: Osceola residents supporting Hurricane Dorian relief

From left, Osceola County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry and Alvez Gonzalez, service center manager for Salvation Army in Osceola County, helped coordinate relief efforts for the Bahamas.

Osceola County residents turned out in the thousands Sunday to help local relief efforts for the hurricane-ravaged Bahamas.

County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry partnered with organizers of the Celebration Cancer Superhero 5K – which already was happening at Lakeside Park to benefit the M Family Foundation in Celebration – and the Salvation Army just a few days earlier.

“We have great people living in our county. Because we were in Celebration during the Superhero 5K, people came out in big numbers,” said Choudhry, whose district 1 includes Celebration.

“We were very lucky we weren’t hit by the hurricane. And anytime devastation happens, you help those in need. After seeing photos from the Bahamas, it was heartbreaking. Many citizens contacted me about how to give back. Right away there was a call to action,” she said.

Choudhry coordinated with a local company that provided a storage unit and a moving truck to help coordinate the heaps of donations, everything from tarps and flashlights to food and clothes.

All of it filled the truck, which eventually got to Salvation Army’s warehouse in Orlando. From there it will be trucked to the organization’s headquarters in Atlanta, and then it will be shipped to the Bahamas on a barge, said Alvez Gonzalez, Service Center Manager for Salvation Army in Osceola County.

“When something happens, we’re one of the first organizations to come in, and stay in,” Gonzalez said.

The organization’s Emergency Disaster Services already is operating with their counterparts in the Bahamas. So far, they have established mobile canteens and provided counseling to weary residents still reeling from the disaster.

The Salvation Army opened shelters in the capital Nassau, on the island of New Providence, nearly a week ago for storm victims from Grand Bahama Island and the Abaco Islands, which garnered the brunt of Hurricane Dorian.

Dorian slammed the islands as a Category 5 hurricane, flattening and flooding whole communities. The storm moved northward and stayed out to sea as it passed Florida.

The slow-moving hurricane had 185 mph maximum sustained winds, gusts that topped 200 mph and a storm surge that reached nearly two-dozen feet.

The death toll continues to rise in the Bahamas where search efforts are still underway for thousands of people who remain unaccounted since the storm, the most powerful hurricane on record in the island nation.

The Bahamian government on Monday said 50 people were killed and critically ill patients were still being airlifted out of the wreckage.

Osceola County residents are part of a nationwide effort to help Hurricane Dorian victims in the Bahamas.

While physical supplies and nonperishable foods are welcomed and appreciated, the best way to give to the Salvation Army is by monetary donation, said Gonzalez, with the Osceola Salvation Army.

The cost of shipping and retail tax on physical donations can be saved when giving money, he said.

“We have great partnerships with companies like Walmart, and they give us amazing prices and we are tax-exempt, so we can spend the money more efficiently than the public,” Gonzalez said.

While the Salvation Army serves people in crisis globally, its mission in Osceola is focused on serving the homeless community and the working poor, he said.

“We have a terrible emergency in Osceola County in the area of homelessness and with affordable housing. People can’t pay for the rents in Osceola County,” said Gonzalez, who took over the Kissimmee office when it opened about a year ago.

Gonzalez is working closely with Choudhry to create a service center for individuals and families in crisis who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness.

“There’s a local fund that can only be used here in Osceola,” said Gonzalez.

At Sunday’s event, for example, several people donated specifically to the Bahamas relief fund and several donated specifically to the local Salvation Army fund, he said.

“Money donated to our local fund can only be spent here,” he said.

“The only thing I do is present to our community the need we have. The people decide what to do with their donations.”

Donations to the Salvation Army can be made by check, credit card and on Amazon.

Contact Gonzalez at the local office at 1621 E. Vine St. in Kissimmee or by phone at  407-932-2009.

Directly support Salvation Army’s Hurricane Dorian relief:

• Donate online: www.HelpSalvationArmy.org

• Donate by phone: 1-800-SAL-ARMY (1-800-725-2769).

• Donate by mail: The Salvation Army, PO Box 1959, Atlanta, Ga., 30301

• Write “Hurricane Dorian” on all checks.