Dawn McGill and her boyfriend Nick Heinemann were supposed to be celebrating their respective September birthdays with massages in Miami.
Then Hurricane Irma roared through their home of Marathon, Florida, and plans changed drastically.
McGill, her children, Joseph, 19, and Kein, 11, Heinemann and their two cats all piled into McGill’s 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis, the trunk laden with clothes, important documents and computers, and headed north for sanctuary.
Today they are nearly 900 miles from the Florida Keys and staying with McGill’s longtime friend Naomi Giampaolo in her Curtis Pond subdivision home in Mooresville.
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After spending all of their funds to travel to Mooresville, McGill, a 49-year-old, self-taught cook and marina store cashier, is selling homemade Key lime pies, banana nut bread and meals out of Giampaolo’s kitchen to raise money to get her family home.
“I’m not getting help from FEMA,” said McGill. “I’m not getting help from the Red Cross. I’m not getting help from anybody. And nor do I expect anyone to give me a handout. I want to work to get this done, but I do want to go home.”
Home is where the heart is and my heart still is in the Keys.
Hurricane Irma refugee Dawn McGill
The family needs to buy another vehicle for Joseph and Heinemann, whose van died just as they started to evacuate, to get back to Florida ahead of McGill and Kein and to purchase camping supplies to be self-sustaining.
Life as the family knew it pre-Irma, living on their 34-foot sailboat at Pancho’s Marina and Fuel Dock, is impossible for the time being. Their boat is swamped with water, covered in mildew and missing its solar-power panel and mast, McGill said.
The city of Marathon has no water, no septic service and no electricity.
I want people to understand I’m trying to help myself. I don’t want to just sit back and collect money. That’s not what this is about. This is about me working really hard to put my family back together.
Hurricane Irma refugee Dawn McGill
“My neighbors need me,” said McGill. “Just like there’s a tight community up here, I want to be down there helping my neighbors that need help. Some of them are a lot less fortunate than I am. I at least have Naomi, you know. I have a roof over my head and a hot shower. They don’t have anything.”
The storm is a familiar story for McGill and other Floridians.
McGill lost everything once before when Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne hit within three weeks of each other in 2004.
She went back afterward and she’ll go back as soon as she can this time, too.
“I’m a Floridian,” McGill said. “You go back.”
If she hits her goal of raising $10,000, McGill wants to pay it forward and help the rest of her hard-hit community.
“This isn’t just about me and my family,” said McGill. “Whatever I can raise that I don’t use to get myself back upright, I want to pass it on to my neighbors.”
Giampaolo keeps a written list of orders taken from several online social media posts advertising McGill’s baking specialities.
“She’s my PR,” McGill said of Giampaolo. “She just tells me what to do.”
As of Sept. 17, after 10 days of baking, Giampaolo estimated they had sold about 130 Key lime pies at $15 each, 11 loaves of banana nut bread at $10 each and five meals of baked ziti and garlic knots at $35 each.
They are a quarter of the way from reaching her $10,000 goal, McGill said.
The response from the residents of Mooresville has been amazing, Heinemann said.
“It’s people like what this community is built up of, that’s what we live in down there,” said Heinemann. “It’s nice to see it somewhere else.”
McGill often begins cooking before anyone else in the home has awaken and cooks late into the night to fulfill orders. A second refrigerator in the garage stores the Key lime pies waiting to be picked up.
Heinemann, 48, has become quite adept at baking himself now.
“I can tell you I know how to make Key lime pies in my sleep,” said Heinemann.
But McGill will most likely lose her sous-chef when Heinemann returns to Marathon with Joseph next week.
Heinemann, who runs a property care and maintenance company, needs to get back to manage his client’s properties.
First, they must raise the funds to buy a vehicle that will get Heinemann and Joseph safely to Marathon and purchase camping gear to live in once they arrive.
Giampaolo has also set up a GoFundMe fundraising page for McGill that McGill was hesitant to agree to since so many more people are suffering compared to her.
But McGill hopes to use the money to help send back toiletries, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, bleach, rubber gloves, cat litter and face masks for her neighbors to use to clean up when Joseph and Heinemann return.
“I guess my thing is, I want people to understand I’m trying to help myself,” McGill said. “I don’t want to just sit back and collect money. That’s not what this is about. This is about me working really hard to put my family back together. I am appreciative of cash donations. I’m not going to say I’m no, but I guess the stigma that goes with GoFundMe me is people looking for a handout, and I’m not.”
McGill and Kein will remain in Mooresville for an unknown period since schools are closed indefinitely in Marathon.
Kein is enrolled at Mooresville Intermediate School where he will starts the sixth grade Sept. 18.
As for McGill and her business, customers have told McGill she should stay in Mooresville and open a bakery.
But McGill knows she can’t do it.
“Home is where the heart is and my heart still is in the Keys,” McGill said.
Kate Stevens is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
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