Families wait for donated supplies to be handed out at Immokalee High School on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. Kelly Olsen’s family drove a trailer full of donations to Immokalee from Minnesota.
Dorothy Edwards/Naples Daily News
NAPLES, Fla. — When Kelly Olsen heard about Hurricane Irma, she packed up her RV and drove 1,749 miles. Not away from the devastation, but toward it.
Olsen lives in Blaine, Minn. where she owns and operates Hans’ Bakery, a local favorite. She and her husband, Ben, have a house on Marco Island, where Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sept. 10.
“At first I was very nervous about our house and our boat, so my husband actually went down there to board everything up,” Olsen said. “I quickly realized though that I was worrying about the wrong things; the closer and closer the hurricane came, the less and less I cared about the physical stuff and just wanted my husband to return.”
He did, and when the two saw pictures of the destruction caused by the storm, their hearts broke.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said, “and I knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t do something.”
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So she immediately set a plan in motion to help those impacted by Irma. She created a special page on the bakery’s website where customers could give monetary donations, and placed a trailer outside the store to collect physical donations.
“Some of my customers were waiting outside the bakery before the trailer even arrived,” she said. “And I had little kids coming up to me with bags full of their allowance quarters that they wanted to give to the people of Florida. It was just incredible.”
A friend in Houston recommended that Olsen bring items that “you’d absolutely need on a long trip, and you’d beat yourself up over forgetting to pack them,” such as bottled water, diapers, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
“At first people donated clothes, but I’ve heard that that’s called the second disaster because they’re just too difficult to sort through and distribute,” Olsen said. “So I really tried to place an emphasis on personal hygiene items like shampoo and deodorant, and then we packaged those items together so they’d be easier to hand out.”
By Wednesday morning, Olsen had collected more than 9,000 pounds of donations and raised $3,600.
“We actually had so many donations that we had to put some of them in a truck headed to Houston because our hitch can only carry 9,000 pounds,” she said.
Families wait for donated supplies to be handed out at Immokalee High School on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. Kelly Olsen’s family drove a trailer full of donations to Immokalee from Minnesota. (Photo: Dorothy Edwards/Naples Daily News)
Wednesday afternoon, Olsen hit the road with her parents, Fred and Ginny Berg, and each took turns driving the RV so they could cover as much ground as possible.
But they hit some bumps along the way — literally.
“While we were driving, some guy rolled down his window and started yelling at us that our tag was gone, and we realized that meant one of our trailer wheels had come off,” Olsen said, “so we were driving on three wheels. We must have hit a pothole or something.”
The family pulled over at a gas station to get the trailer fixed, but the mechanic who came didn’t have the right tools to do the job, so they spent the night camped out in the parking lot with a promise that help would come in the morning.
The next day, Olsen and her mom rode their bikes to a nearby Walmart to pick up some more supplies. While they were there, Olsen’s phone rang; it was the mechanic saying the trailer was fixed, and it was free of charge.
“I just started bawling in the middle of Walmart,” Olsen said. “I’ve been so overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity throughout this whole thing.”
The incident delayed Olsen’s arrival by nearly 12 hours, so she didn’t get to Immokalee until 6 a.m. Saturday, just three hours before she planned to make pancakes for up to 500 people.
“I’m tired, but it’s definitely worth it,” she said with a smile as she helped her dad park the RV at Immokalee High School, which is currently a county shelter.
Before breakfast Olsen and her parents passed out donations to approximately 50 people. Diapers were one of the most sought after items, with desperate parents pushing and shoving to try to get their hands on them, and shouting out the sizes they needed.
“It’s overwhelming,” Olsen said. “It shows how needy these people are.”
With some help from more seasoned volunteers, the crowd quickly became an organized line with a system in place to prevent people from taking too much.
Though it wasn’t long before there was another snafu; one of the RV’s fuses blew, so Olsen and her mom could only use one griddle instead of the several they had planned.
Olsen didn’t let it destroy her positive spirit though.
“We might have to serve one pancake at a time,” she said, “but we’ll get there.”
Olsen and her parents plan on restocking the trailer Saturday night at a local Walmart and then traveling to Everglades City to do it all again.
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