| The News Herald
In the middle of a story Bobbie Lilly was telling me about a church in Louisiana recovering from a hurricane, she stopped suddenly trying to recall the name of the church. “I’m getting forgetful,” she said. “I must be getting old.”
We’re all getting old, but Bobbie, 71, sure wasn’t forgetting the help her church, New River Baptist, in the Louisiana town of St. Amant received after an unpredictable storm in 2016 dropped up to 24 inches of rain on its four buildings. “So many people came to our need. They were from Florida, Georgia, Texas… When you lose a church, it’s like losing part of yourself.”
More: Peter Fischetti: Finding a plumber is usually a pipe dream
More: USELESS WARNINGS: Don’t take this medicine if you’re allergic to it
So when Hurricane Michael paid an unwelcome visit two years ago, Bobbie, who was still living in St. Amant, and her husband, Jim, 79, filled the car with blankets, cleaning supplies and an ice chest filled with jambalaya donated by their daughter, and drove to Lynn Haven in Bay County to drop them off.
The Lillys had visited Panama City Beach plenty of times over the years, and decided last year to make the beach their permanent home.
“It was a home I had literally dreamed about,” she said. They would celebrate their golden wedding anniversary on May 23, with their four children, three of their spouses and all 17 grandchildren from all over the country and as far away as Guam planning to attend.
Then came the pandemic, and there went the party.
Three months later, Hurricane Laura landed in Cameron, a Louisiana town of 400 or so which had lost almost half of its population from two previous hurricanes. Coincidentally, the Lillys were already planning a trip there to celebrate their granddaughter’s engagement. Now there was another reason to head west.
“I said, let’s see what we can collect to take there,” Bobbie recalled. In just a few days, they received $970 in cash and checks, and enough toiletries, pandemic masks, bottled water, garbage bags and other necessities to again fill their car. Jim figured buckets would also come in handy so took off to Lowe’s and Home Depot to see if they would help. If you buy 10, we’ll give you 10, Lowe’s said. Home Depot went further, handing Jim 15 free buckets.
“I was surprised and humbled by the response,” Bobbie said. “(The neighbors) trusted me and my husband. We’ve been here only a year.” Rev. Adam Beach, their church pastor, could hardly believe the donations. “Oh my stinking goodness,” he said. (The pastor has quite a sense of humor, Bobbie advised me.) And Erik Wille, who coordinated the distribution, looked at the donations and said, “This makes my heart happy.”
This time, New River Baptist Church was spared. Instead, a friend, Michelle Templet, and her father, David, drove down to Creole to distribute supplies o small churches that did suffer damage. She took plenty of photos that showed “total and absolute devastation everywhere… What did make my heart smile was how everyone was working together. This is their home, their community. They will rebuild.”
I mentioned pandemic masks among the supplies, and that’s another story. In February, when the Coronavirus invaded America, Bobbie noticed an online request for help in cutting masks. Paula Henry, who was to become a good friend, vowed to sew a thousand masks for the Panama City Beach community and needed volunteers to cut the material. She had injured a hand when an open window slammed down it and required surgery.
Bobbie responded. “I decided to answer the call and help the community. That was the least I could do. We were able to exceed the one thousand giveaway goal.” In all they gave away more than 3,000 masks, to beach residents and to others around the country.
They started the project with material they already had, then others pitched in. “We were able to exceed our goal because many of our awesome neighbors started giving us fabric and well as monetary donations to purchase the ear loops, backings, thread, etc. that we needed.” So far, Bobbie estimates, she’s cut more than 6,000 masks.
While still a member of her “home” church in Louisiana, the Lillys now attend Gulf Beach Baptist, also known as Church on the Beach; its Sunday school class made a generous monetary donation for hurricane victims as well. Bobbie has been working hard on the Support the Blue projects, asking residents to honor law enforcement by shining blue lights on the front of their homes this weekend. For most of their adult lives, the Lillys owned clothing shops in Louisiana, and two of them are owned by a daughter and a son.
As we mark the two-year anniversary of Michael, I thought a profile of the Lillys could be a way of honoring all the Lillys who have done so much for their neighbors and their communities. But I made the mistake of allowing Bobbie check it for accuracy. Oh, I had to correct a few things, but she seemed ready to have an attorney send me a cease-and-desist letter for focusing so much on her. “I’m about helping people, not getting recognition for my deeds,” she said.
“OK, next time,” I said.
As I write this, Delta is approaching Louisiana, and Bobbie is still accepting donations. Email her at [email protected] if you’d like to help.
Peter Fischetti is a retired journalist from Southern California, which he hopes you won’t hold against him. He lives in Panama City Beach.