Vitalia Blanco sat in the plush yellow armchair in her home, draped in a multicolored flower smock, and watched as seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson helped rebuild her home.
Blanco, 97, was just one of thousands of Floridians caught in Hurricane Irma’s path last week. The storm steamrolled through the state, including Blanco’s home in Naples. In its wake were water-logged streets, felled trees and whole cities in need of assistance.
“Even living here a long time I see a lot of hurricanes, but I never see one like that,” Blanco’s son, Lazaro, said. “I consider myself, me and my mother, very lucky to survive that and all the hell.”
Donations poured in from everyday citizens and celebrities alike, but not all of those famous athletes showed up at Blanco’s house to personally check on her.
But in came Johnson, who just left a playoff race in Chicago and now must head to another in New Hampshire. One of Johnson’s sponsors is Lowe’s, and so he was able to visit stores in some of the hardest-hit parts of Florida – and then take from the stores to give back to local communities.
“I love reading and watching and seeing these stories unfold and all the goodwill that happens in these communities,” Johnson said. “That’s really what has led me here to participate in it.”
Monday, Johnson visited Blanco, who came to the United States from Cuba with her son. Johnson drove down her debris-ladden street and up the gravel driveway, or at least as much as he could with a downed tree in the way. Those trees had knocked down power lines nearby, making it difficult for the elderly to survive in the heat and the dark.
Johnson and Lowe’s employees helped install a portable generator at Blanco’s home, as well as an air conditioning unit they hooked up to that generator. Afterward, Johnson grabbed a chainsaw and sawed through the largest tree that had fallen in Blanco’s yard.
Before he left, Johnson went over to sit with Blanco. She grabbed his face, smiled and then prayed for him having come.
“This is the best thing that can happen in my life, I’m telling you, especially for my mother because she was a little bit upset about this and that, and you know, afraid,” Lazaro Blanco said. “The best thing happening in my life is today.”