Host mom shares Hurricane Ian story with Florida leaders

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Host parent Jenn Downes spoke about Better Together before Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds and several state leaders this morning. The event highlighted successes of the Florida Disaster Fund and the progression of recovery from Hurricane Ian, including the work of organizations like Better Together.

“They’re boots on the ground in the literal sense,” the First Lady said. “They were out there knocking on doors, making sure that children had what they need and families had what they needed. And they were also making phone calls. And if there were needs that weren’t being met, they were sourcing it and bringing it right to their doorstep.”



Jenn benefited from the fund through Better Together. The storm flooded her family’s home. They lost almost everything. Jenn fought back tears as she spoke about having to put her boys’ belongings to the curb. Her family, who had been key in helping other families get back on their feet through Better Together, now needed help. Thanks to the Florida Disaster Fund and supporters of Better Together’s hurricane relief efforts, families like Jenn’s will get back on their feet, and back to helping their neighbors.

Host parent Jenn Downes spoke about Better Together before Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis and other state leaders Friday, February 3.

Jenn wrote this letter for those who may have missed her speak before state officials:

Once a year children get the chance to ask for everything they wish for in hopes that jolly old Saint Nick brings it their way. They make a list to send to the North Pole, prepare cookies and carrots to leave out on Christmas Eve, and get the surprise of Santa’s delivery the next morning. This year, my two little boys were unsure that Santa and his reindeer would even know where to find them.

On September 28, 2022, Jim Farrell, a long-retired meteorologist who truly had everyone’s trust, made a social media post around 4 am about Hurricane Ian that sent chills down my spine. His words were grim and powerful:

“We are looking at an outcome that was not seriously imaginable just 2 days ago. This is the perfect storm set-up. A major hurricane, moving slowly and headed for SWFL… Unless Ian weakens dramatically much of Coastal SWFL will be underwater due to the surge. Yes, I’m purposely using “will” instead of “could be”. Yes I am putting my reputation on the line… I am hoping for a meteorological miracle that Ian weakens from wind shear and its effects are greatly diminished but hope is not an actionable strategy. Not for everyone but for some, tomorrow into Thursday is going to be “the big one”. Seriously, I do not like the set up. In many ways it is my worst case scenario. God Bless and stay safe to fight another day.”

We hadn’t evacuated but decided that at 7 am we would get to higher ground just 10 minutes away from our home in order to keep our boys safe. We made the right decision. Our house took on about a foot of water from the river, our roof tried to separate from the walls by the kitchen area, our screens were mostly blown out, our pool pipes underground broke, and our back deck crumbled. We lost nearly every piece of furniture and most of our belongings to water and mold. Unfortunately, this means that almost all our toys and my sons’ personal belongings were thrown to the curb as they witnessed their house flipped inside-out.

Fast forward to December, and after so many expenses we were not sure how Christmas was going to happen this year. We had to replace all of our food, had high gas costs due to not living close to where we worked and where the boys went to school, and had to purchase new daily needs from head to toe: from shampoo to socks and shoes. There was little left in our budget for any “extras” such as toys. The boys grew up fast and were understanding, only asking for three simple Christmas requests each: a basketball, fishing lures, and socks; a scooter, Pokémon cards, and cool shoes. Honestly, they deserved so much more.

A call the week before Christmas humbled us greatly. It was Megan Rose, the CEO of Better Together: “Jenn, we want to bless your family for Christmas.” These nine words changed the holidays for my family. Brittanie showed up the next morning with a delivery of gift cards to use in any way needed. We were able to purchase a grill as ours had rusted and was only held up by a block of wood, but more importantly we were able to fulfill our sons’ wishes and give them so much more than they asked for. After all they had been through without complaint, we were happy to be able to give them a Christmas like no other. This would not have been possible without the First Lady Casey DeSantis’s donation collection efforts for the Florida Disaster Fund. We benefited from the Florida Disaster Fund through Better Together and will forever be grateful for this blessing.

We became a host family with Better Together five years ago. Host families are volunteers who open their home and hearts to the children of families going through a difficult time to give the parents the space and time they need to get back on their feet. While we know this helps the placing families, it helps our family just as much, if not more. We found out that it is possible to love a stranger’s children like your own, that there are really good people who want to be good parents but just need a bit of assistance to be back on their feet, and that there are community members willing to give support to those who are able to help.

Through hosting, we have become lifelong friends and mentors of one particular mom who was able to safely remove herself from human trafficking. She is now in another city and is absolutely thriving as a certified firefighter/EMT. The impact that a month of hosting had on her and her son’s lives is what keeps us going. We get weekly texts asking for parenting advice, but also giving us updates and sharing photos of their everyday life. She has stayed with us a few times at our home just to be together for a weekend, and we plan to do that again when our house is put back together.

We decided to enclose an unfinished room in our home in order to be able to host more freely. I recently left teaching after almost 11 years to be a more present wife and mother, to fix our home, to be able to volunteer in my sons’ classrooms, and to work part time for a local nonprofit. In turn, this will also allow me more flexibility to be a host family.

Megan Rose and her team at Better Together have promised going forward to help us again when we are settled in. Something that Better Together was able to provide that all other agencies couldn’t was the emotional and moral support. Megan and Isis constantly check in with us to see if they can help with immediate needs and give us the comfort of knowing our needs won’t go unmet. They have trusted us with hosting children, and we have trust in them that we will be able to get back on our feet in order to provide for our family and host again in the near future.

Learn more about becoming a host family:


Posted February 3, 2023

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