KINGSPORT, Tenn. (Sept. 20, 2017) -- Rithvik Vutukuri saw the news about the hurricanes, and how people were flooded out of their homes. He wanted to help. But what can a 16-year-old do when he lives in Tennessee, and the hurricanes happened so far away?
Lucky for Vutukuri, his next-door neighbor knew the answer.
“I told him, ‘We’ve got a thing happening at the church,’” said the Rev. Jim Harless, a retired pastor who attends First Broad Street United Methodist Church.
Vutukuri learned about a “cleaning kit” project that First Broad Street was doing with thousands of other United Methodist churches across the country. The senior at Dobyns-Bennett High School was so enthusiastic about finding a way to help survivors of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, he collected more than $3,000 from friends and family to fill up 47 five-gallon buckets with cleaning supplies.
“Once the project took off, it really took off,” said Vutukuri.
“It was a shock to everybody,” said Harless.
First Broad Street received a list with specific instructions from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which routinely provides the “cleaning kits” to flood- or storm-ravaged regions all over the world. One “cleaning kit” is a five-gallon bucket filled with detergents, clothespins, clothesline, sponges, trash bags, wipes, air freshener, insect-repellent spray, gloves, scouring pads, dust masks and other items to aid in cleaning up after a storm or flood.
When Pastor Harless learned that his young neighbor wanted to fill a few kits, he went to his church and picked up six buckets.
“I knew a lot of people in the community wanted to donate,” said Vutukuri. “The hardest part wasn’t collecting, it was getting it there.”
The student and his mother, Sunitha Gunda, said they were encouraged to learn First Broad Street already had a way to get the cleaning supplies to hurricane survivors. First Broad Street is one of 874 churches in the Holston Conference, which planned to pick up all the kits collected in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia and north Georgia. The kits would be delivered to UMCOR’s Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, Louisiana, and then sent to areas where they were most needed.
“The church was very specific in what was needed,” said Gunda, referring to the UMCOR list of items to fill each bucket. Instead of asking friends to hunt down the cleaning products, Gunda said they decided to ask friends to give money to sponsor a bucket.
“We didn’t anticipate the response was going to be this big,” Gunda said.
Vutukuri visited or contacted friends in Kingsport and Johnson City. “I just talked to them,” he said. “Quite a few wanted to sponsor more than one bucket.”
The money started “rolling in,” said Harless. “I had to go back to the church for six more buckets, then 15, then 20 more. It got to be funny. They kept calling and wanting more and more buckets.”
As the donations accumulated, Vutukuri and his mother scoured the shelves of several stores to buy items on the “bucket list.” Vutukuri enlisted the help of his friends, Vijay Ananthula (age 14) and Aysha Patel (age 17), as well as little sister Rishita Vutukuri (age 13) to complete the massive project.
About a week after the project started, Harless told the mission director at First Broad Street that he would need a truck to come get the 47 buckets his neighbors had amassed.
“It was a powerful moment when we went to pick them up,” said Danny Howe, mission director.
Howe asked everyone to join hands while he shared a prayer over the buckets. Gunda, whose faith is Hinduism, said she was brought to tears by his words. “We felt so good,” she said. “There were such good vibrations after that.”
The next day, Vutukuri learned that he had been named a National Merit semifinalist. His goal is to study biomedical engineering as an undergraduate, before advancing to medical school.
Howe later wrote an article for First Broad Street’s newsletter, announcing that the church had collected more than 200 cleaning kits and $4,325 in monetary donations for UMCOR. "His heart took over, and his story of the struggles of those whose homes had been flooded by the storms inspired the hearts and generosity of many, many more.”
This story originally appeared in the Kingsport Times-News.