As we go about our daily lives, it’s easy to take basic amenities such as electricity and running water for granted. But for a group of University of Alabama students who spent their fall break helping with recovery efforts in the Florida Panhandle following Hurricane Michael, the eye-opening experience left them with a greater appreciation of what they have after seeing so many who lost so much.
Beyond Bama, a service group that is part of UA’s Center for Service and Leadership, teamed up with Operation Blessing to help clear debris and sort through what was left of homes in Panama City, Florida. Although the storm made landfall weeks ago, the students were some of the first to lend a hand in the areas where they served.
“We met several people who were seeing what was left of their homes for the first time,” said Abby Greenwell, a senior who served as a trip leader. “The recovery process is really just beginning.”
The students were split into three teams with each team working at one home per day. Some team members removed debris while others had the difficult task of sorting through the homeowners’ personal belongings and determining what was salvageable. During the three-day trip, they worked at nine homes.
“We inspected countless items to see what each family could keep and what had been affected by mold or water damage and had to be thrown away,” said Greenwell. “The hardest part was having to throw away someone’s belongings that they had spent their hard-earned money on. It was very emotional.”
Naples, Florida, native Mackenzie Thompson has experienced several hurricanes over the years but admits she has never seen anything like the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
“Hurricanes aren’t anything new to me, and people back home really don’t freak out because they happen pretty often and they’re rarely this bad,” said Thompson. “But the news doesn’t even do the destruction in Panama City justice, and we still didn’t see the worst areas because they are barricaded from the public.”
A custom for Beyond Bama students during every trip is to have reflections at the end of each day to share their experience and how it personally affected them. A common theme among the group was a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life and a desire to continue to serve others.
“The experience has given me a new appreciation for how lucky my family has been to escape hurricanes pretty unscathed,” said Thompson. “It also gave me a sense of what I can do with my free time. I volunteer quite a bit through the CSL but there is still so much more I can do. A few of us have already discussed going back to Panama City if we have a free weekend.
“I’ve never been around people who were so positive after everything they had been through. The people we worked with were so happy and firm in their belief that everything will be OK.”
Beyond Bama organizes trips during fall, winter and spring breaks. Alternative break trips allow students to travel to communities in parts of the country and the world, and engage in service and experiential learning during university breaks. Students can sign up for a trip online and there is no commitment to serve on multiple trips.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.