RALEIGH — At the start of this year, hundreds of families, mostly immigrants, quietly struggled to carve out lives in the Triangle, living side by side in Stony Brook North Mobile Home Park.
Many there still struggle, but they do it alongside well-settled Triangle residents and a network of churches and other faith communities who committed to help them after the storms of April 16 ravaged the mobile home park.
Four children died when a tree crushed their mobile home. Nearly 20 homes were destroyed as winds snapped gangly pines and sent them flying like missiles. Dozens more were badly damaged.
Some families walked away, too shaken by the experience and unsure of how to fix their mobile homes. Those that remained have been flanked by dozens of volunteers who picked up hammers and got to work with the residents.
This spring, Centro International de Raleigh, a small husband-and-wife nonprofit group, set up headquarters in a mobile home at the entrance of Stony Brook, acting as a command center to handle all things broken at Stony Brook.
John Faison, founder of CIR, quickly learned that many needs had existed before the storm. The tornadoes just made them obvious to strangers who, before April, knew nothing of Stony Brook.
Faison wanted to be able to deal with all their needs, not just crushed roofs and busted windows. He solicited faith communities to adopt families and help them navigate a range of obstacles; 14 groups committed.
Cindy Motamen, a member of Hayes Barton United Methodist Church who heads her church's efforts, met Dora Hernandez when she was six months pregnant and a newly single mother. Weeks after the storm, police picked up her husband for a driving offense; immigration officials plan to deport him, Hernandez said.
And the only thing Hernandez owned - a decades-old mobile home battered by the storm - seemed beyond repair.
When Hernandez delivered her baby in July, Motamen and the church helped her get supplies for the baby. And when one of her older children struggled with all the adjustments, a church member who was a former guidance counselor helped guide Hernandez.
"If the storm hadn't happened, we never would have met Dora," Motamen said. "And she never would have had this group of a dozen people walking with her on this journey and trying to make her life better."
Motamen admits her group does not have all the answers. After the support team realized Hernandez's mobile home couldn't be repaired to satisfy modern building code requirements, they began hunting for a new mobile home to help Hernandez buy. So far, they have had little luck. For now, she rents a mobile home from management in Stony Brook, paying $800 a month with the help of a temporary federal housing allowance.
Hernandez, 33, said she is overwhelmed by the church's care for her.
"Without them, my children would have no place to go," she said through a translator.
Six months after the tornadoes, Stony Brook is still struggling to recover. A smattering of broken-down homes remain, slated to be torn down by the city in the coming weeks. But management has tucked new mobile homes among the rows, filling empty lots with new homes and fresh landscaping.
Al Mignacci, a volunteer who came to Stony Brook a few days after the storm and has been back to help every day since, still has about 20 pages worth of repairs to do on mobile homes there. But, after Hurricane Irene, the teams of volunteers that had come steadily since the tornadoes headed to the coast instead. "We're no longer a hot spot," Mignacci said. "But work here still has to be done."
He, however, is not going anywhere. Like Faison and others associated with Centro International de Raleigh, Mignacci said he will stay until the work is done. Maybe he'll stay longer.
CIR plans to soon vacate its mobile home in Stony Brook. It has leased an office across the road, however, and plans to have a presence in the community for years to come. "They need more than we've given them so far," Mignacci said.