A year ago, the neighborhood in which the Ascension of our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church’s rectory sits looked a lot different. Last September’s flood waters left many East Sayre homes severely damaged, displacing many families as the holiday season approached. 
The scene was one that a group of volunteers from the Grace United Methodist Church in Indiana, Pa., one of the first relief groups to respond to the Valley, remember well.
The work is far from over, but the group, as well as others who have come in to volunteer over the past year, has made great progress, volunteers said, reminiscing as they enjoyed lunch meat sandwiches around the rectory’s dining room table.
The volunteers, who live a four-hour van ride away, are nearing the end of their third trip to the Valley in about a year’s time. Since then, some of the houses in East Sayre have been restored, and others are on the way to repair, they said.
Last year, the group and others worked tirelessly to fulfill an ailing man’s wish to be back in his home by Christmas, said volunteer Jack Bennett. They also worked on a house belonging to a family with several small children, who brought volunteers candy canes and hugged them as they worked.
A year later, the volunteers found themselves in a similar position, working to get those who have now been displaced for over a year back into their residences for the Christmas season.
During this trip, volunteers built steps and worked on other carpentry projects at a house on Garden Street in Sayre. Others installed drywall at a house on Chestnut Street in Athens, rushing over after lunch to finish last-minute painting before their van left early in the evening.
The Grace group and others volunteering their time through the Valley Relief Council (VRC) have been able to complete work on 13 houses and continue to work on another 26, said VRC chairperson Lucinda Brown.
A few families will be able to return to their homes just in time for Christmas, Brown said, even if work on the properties isn’t entirely complete. Many residences are close enough to being done that residents will soon be able to move back into them, she said.
The situation is far improved from this time last year, when the VRC had a collection of Christmas decorations, gifts, wrapping paper and food stored for flood survivors. Since then, the VRC’s priorities have shifted from fulfilling short-term needs to long-term ones, and that’s where groups like the Methodist volunteers come in.
Bennett said that the volunteers at Grace, who have traveled to New Orleans, Oklahoma, Haiti and other places in the past, heard of the Valley’s need for volunteer groups last fall through the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The group thought their first trip in December of 2011 would be exploratory, but they ended up jumping in head-first, Bennett said. The first group to stay at the rectory, lent to the VRC by the Ukrainian Archdiocese of Philadelphia, volunteers built bunk beds and installed a continuous hot water system at the rectory in the evenings after working on flooded houses all day.
Since then, the group has developed a rapport with homeowners and community members in their repeat trips. While eating sandwiches, chips and coleslaw Wednesday, the group happily entertains visitors, including VRC volunteer Dan Polinski of Sayre, who briefly stops by to drop off pictures of the group from an earlier visit, wish the volunteers a safe trip home and offer regards to their families.
The volunteers also joke with one another during their brief meal, their safety goggles and paper masks resting on their heads while they eat. At one point, volunteer Bobby Myers playfully taps Bennett on the head, causing a cloud of drywall dust from his baseball cap to form and travel through the dining room. The group howls with laughter.
“We take our work seriously, but nothing else,” Bennett said. “We have a good time.”
Bennett estimated the group has worked on at least 10 structures in the past year, during three trips to Sayre and Athens and another two trips to Shickshinny, Pa., which also suffered flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee.
Many of the group’s members take vacation time from work to go on mission trips. Availability, construction experience, a willingness to learn and a sense of humor, along with the calling the group feels to perform the work, keep bringing them back to the Valley, Bennett said.
“God’s driven us to do this,” Myers added. “By helping people, we get more back in return.”
The group is planning their next trip, likely to parts of New Jersey affected by Hurricane Sandy, Bennett said. However, they’ll be back to the Valley, he said, as long as their help is needed.
Brown says it will be, as another deadline looms: March 13, the end of 18 months for families that remain in Federal Emergency Management Agency temporary housing units. As the date approaches, resources will continue to be aimed at getting six families still living in the mobile units back into their homes, she said.
It’s important for those families to be making progress because FEMA officials inspect the mobile units and the properties under construction once a month, with construction progress closely monitored, Brown said. Those not making progress on their properties could be evicted from their mobile units.
Eighteen months seems like a long time to rebuild, but many factors prohibit people from making progress. FEMA reimbursement funds quickly run out, and labor and materials are costly, making volunteer laborers instrumental to the area’s recovery. The VRC also assisted homeowners by recently securing about $80,000 in grant money for materials, which aided approximately 16 families, Brown said.
Groups are scheduled to come in through the first part of 2013 already, and Brown said she was optimistic work on the homes would continue to progress.
“Everyone that’s been coming has just done a wonderful job,” she said. “They help so many people here. Without them, who knows where we would be.”
Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: arenko@thedailyreview.com.