LEE COUNTY, FL - If you travel across southwest Florida, you’ll see the debris piled up and construction crews getting to work. Florida is rebuilding, but the process is slow.
“It transformed our lives. It was something that kind of changed us forever as a community,” said Denise Gergley, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lee County.
Lee County was one of the hardest hit counties impacted by Hurricane Ian, and as the adults pick up the pieces, our team wanted to ask an important question: Are the kids alright?
We sat down with several kids at the Boys and Girls Club just outside of Fort Myers to get the answer.
“My name is Branden Peralta, and I'm, my age is 12, and I'm in seventh grade," said Peralta, who rode out the storm with his family at home.
Peralta's family had no power, water, or internet for weeks.
“We had to use our grill to cook our food, mostly because the stove wasn't turning on. Then, after, we were like, ‘Finally, the power's back on,' and we don't have to, like, struggle to cook our food.’”
Then, there is Chanel Ball.
“I am 11 years old. I'm in the fifth grade,” she said.
Ball said the worst part was being out of school for weeks. Students were out of school for 23 days in Lee County.
The Boys and Girls Club of Lee County opened its doors for all-day programming when schools were closed so parents could take their kids to a safe place during the day.
“Mentally? I just felt bored out of my mind and like, I was actually pretty sad,” said Ball. “I missed my friends a lot because, you know, you have the most fun when you're with the people you love a lot.”
Ball said she couldn’t believe the damage the storm left behind.
“I was shocked because I wouldn’t have thought it would be that bad of a storm," she said.
Thirteen-year-old Maria Franco agreed.
“It sounded like there was a war battleground outside of our house. So, there was trees falling, and I think part of our fence came out of the ground. It was just chaos,” said Franco.
Franco also struggled with being out of school for so long.
“I started falling behind in grades because of all the nerve-wracking and the stress. There were times when it just got to the point where I was screaming into my pillow just to have some sort of social interaction with something. But after that, it’s kind of gotten better," she said.
Franco said things are getting better because of the Boys and Girls Club. It’s become a safe haven. This safe haven is making sure no one misses Thanksgiving this year.
The club served a hot Thanksgiving meal to more than 80 kids, donated by local restaurant Brass Tap and its owner, Mathew Baum. The young students loved the meal, but the club brings them much more than that.
“It does a great deal for me. I met so many friends here,” said Franco.
“It made me feel like this is a second home, and I want to be here like every second of the day,” said Ball.
“It makes me feel safe here. Like, I don't need to be shy about talking to new people,” said Peralta.
Despite all they’ve experienced, they can be kids here.
“They were all a little shell-shocked of everything that was happening in their lives. But the one thing that I will say is the club brought some normalcy for them,” said Gergley.
After a moment of normalcy celebrating the holiday, we asked a typical question and found answers you’d hope kids would never have to say: this year, what were they thankful for?
“We survived,” said Peralta.
“I feel so thankful that everyone is safe,” said Franco.
This storm taught these kids to value life in a way many adults don’t even recognize.
“I really want to go see my family because I want to make sure they're okay. You know, this might be like the last time I get to see them. So, make every moment with your family count,” said Ball.
But they hold out hope that soon, things can and will be better.
“I'm very hopeful. It got pretty normal after Irma and many other hurricanes, and I think that after a couple of weeks we will all go back to regular schedule, and Ian will be history,” Franco said with a warm grin.
To donate to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lee County, click HERE.