St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Scientologists work to aid storm victims

CHRIS TISCH
Published August 22, 2004

PORT CHARLOTTE - The bright yellow tent erected behind a shopping mall has many things storm victims need: canned food, produce, diapers, bathroom tissue, tarps, bug spray, can openers, baby formula, shampoo.

Staffing the depot are a swarm of workers wearing equally bright yellow shirts emblazoned with block letters saying "Scientology Volunteer Minister."

About 60 church volunteers, mostly from Tampa Bay, are traveling daily to Charlotte County to help with relief efforts. They showed up soon after the storm, offered to help and were assigned by emergency officials to work the supplies depot. The Scientologists erected their own tent and staffed it. It is stocked with items donated by the government, social service agencies and private individuals.

The weary need only drive up. The yellow-shirted volunteers fetch supplies and load them in the waiting cars. It's all free.

"A lot of people in the neighborhood really appreciate it," said storm victim Mario Fernandez, who made his second trip to the yellow tent Wednesday afternoon to get food and water.

Judy Fagerman, coordinator of Scientology's volunteer ministers in Charlotte County, said church members have been placed at three locations in Charlotte County. In hard-hit Punta Gorda, they work side-by side with the National Guard.

"They helped out a lot of people it seems like," said Sgt. Brett Mewbourn, a guardsman from Palmetto. "We've been playing well together."

Scientologists garnered considerable attention for their volunteer work at Ground Zero in New York after Sept. 11, 2001.

Their humanitarian aid immediately after the attacks drew praise from disaster relief organizations. But the establishment of a nearby detoxification clinic modeled on L. Ron Hubbard's teachings - though it became a popular alternative among many firefighters - drew a wary eye from some fire department officials who called it scientifically unproven.

At the yellow tent in Port Charlotte, a placard slightly smaller than a movie poster features a large reprint of a New York newspaper's coverage of Scientologists' volunteer work at Ground Zero.

The Scientologists working the supply tent said they generally do not mention the church to the stricken.

"If somebody asked me about it, sure," said volunteer minister Rick Filisky, 54, of Clearwater. "But I'm here to work."

The volunteers have handed out a few copies of The Way to Happiness, a booklet containing Scientology founder Hubbard's moral code, Fagerman said.

And while Scientologists, whose spiritual headquarters are in Clearwater, have become much more active in recruiting in the Tampa Bay area in recent years, the volunteers' efforts in Charlotte County are about helping people in need, not recruiting, they say.

Last week, cheerful but sweaty volunteers stacked food and water, loaded grocery carts and helped people push the goods to victim's cars.

"It's the right thing to do," said Fagerman, 47, of Dunedin.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.