After the devastation of Hurricane Michael, FSU Panama City students, faculty and staff were left with one question: What can we do to help?
Student Government Council Service Chair Jeffery Williams initially volunteered with the Cajun Navy, transforming his minimally damaged home into a staging area the grassroots disaster relief group and housing volunteers. For a week, the group woke up at dawn to load a truck with tools and supplies, then respond to calls relayed by a dispatcher.
When the crew left, Williams was left to ponder what was next. He and other members of SGC banded together to continue relief efforts.
Their effort was inspired by a social media post by fellow SGC member Angela Donahue: “What does it mean to be a Seminole? It means that we are a tribe. We belong to each other. We work together for the good of the people. Rise up 'Noles! for together, we will forever remain UNCONQUERED! We ARE FSU.”
The group initially started small, going door to door in the hardest-hit areas to offer aid to those in need and distributing food and cleaning supplies donated by Gulf Coast State College’s Enactus organization. In the first day, they temporarily fixed a woman’s flat tire, brought supplies to a man who couldn’t leave his home and reported potential scammers to the authorities. They filed tickets for extreme needs to other volunteer organizations like the Cajun Navy.
“Not everyone was able to get out to a location where supplies were being handed out,” Williams said. “Everyone was very pleased and excited to see us. Even people who didn’t take supplies thanked us for our work.”
On Day 4, they came across a group of teenage Florida State fans, who were obviously excited to see FSU reaching out, yelling,“Oh my God, FSU is seriously here?! Guys, FSU is here at our house!”
Within the first week, their team included eight volunteers totaling 126 hours of community service.
Other FSU Seminoles were called to action expanding service projects across the community. Faculty member Mark Fuelner cut trees away from driveways and atop roofs. Alumni passed out towels and toiletries in a comfort station that offered showers and other services to those without, and a staff member distributed diapers through the Junior League’s Diaper Bank. Many others distributed hot meals to first responders and those in need through Operation BBQ.
Outreach was a natural way to show Seminole pride, they all said.
“FSU PC is a vital member of the community and therefore, shares a responsibility to be a leader with other agencies and volunteers to assist in the recovery efforts,” said Associate Dean Irvin Clark, who organized students to serve through Operation BBQ.
For the FSU Panama City admissions team, clearing debris at Lynn Haven Elementary School was a way to put action behind the campus’s mission to be our community’s university.
“We call each other a family, we help students achieve their goals and always do what it takes to make them proud to be a ‘Nole,” Admissions Officer Alina Durham said. “Helping a community is our way of thanking everyone who has been so supportive of us and our students!”
“I hope that through our continued efforts, we will make an impact on the community, continue to help those in need and become a leader in the rebuilding process,” Admissions Officer Mackenzie Masters agreed. “I felt such a sense of pride watching the pile of debris that we placed on the side of the road continue to grow – and knowing that it was no longer going to litter the grounds of Lynn Haven Elementary School. I was excited that the kids now had a debris-free campus and playground and trash-free classrooms to enjoy.”
When faculty member Mark Feulner compared his lost fence to the devastation in other parts of the county, he knew he needed to help. When the roads were cleared, he checked on the dive locker at FSU Panama City then staff member Adam Wendt, who’s phone wasn’t working. After clearing debris from Wendt’s yard, they decided to keep going. Feulner bought a chainsaw that day, then starting reaching out to friends and FSU Panama City staff members to gauge their needs.
“When I got the calls back from our fellow Seminoles, I started a spreadsheet and started working down the list,” Feulner said.
The group of volunteers eventually grew to six or eight friends, who for weeks went from person to person to deliver gas, water, ice and other supplies. They tarped roofs and cut trees away from people’s homes.
“It was so overwhelming in the beginning,” Feulner said. “It was amazing how happy people were just to cut a path for people to get to their front door. The little things that didn’t seem like that much work was really significant for people.”
While some groups reached out to develop new projects, others had to transform current plans into relief efforts.
Since the campus closure after the storm derailed the Psychology Club’s annual Monster Bash, club members knew they wanted to use Halloween as community outreach. With only two days before the holiday, the club decided to volunteer at an existing event rather from start from scratch. They booked their spot within an hour of discussing the event.
Decked out in costumes with their Hawaiian shirt-clad skeleton and a garnet and gold adorned trunk, the group passed out candy and joy to school-aged children and their families.
“I cannot count the number of parents who thanked us for giving their children somewhere to go for Halloween,” said Melissa Adams, a member of the Psychology Club. “It was amazing to see both the children and the parents having so much fun. With the exception of the buildings around us missing roofs and windows, it was almost like life had returned to normal just for a little while.”
As the community rebuilds and renews itself, local FSU Seminoles will continue to help transform the wreckage into hope.
“It was important for me to help the community because I’ve been where they are. I understand what it’s like to stand in front of the wreckage that used to be your home, and wonder how anything will ever be ‘normal’ again,” said Adams, from the Psychology Club.
“I think it’s important to help the community because it’s during difficult times that we need to band together to help each other in any way we can,” SGC President Justine Powell said. “One small act of kindness can completely change someone’s day. We are all in this together and we will get through this together.”
“Because there was a team of us working together, we were able to help many more people,” Feulner said. “We just felt so blessed that we were spared, and we see everyone else in such bad shape. We were blessed, so we helped out.”
Operation Seminole Tribe will continue canvassing the county to offer relief on weekends as long as supplies and volunteers are available. To get involved, email Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.