Volunteers help with disaster relief in Florida


Courtesy of Abby Greenwell

Amanda Le, Contributing Writer

Although she is a Florida resident and a part of a family that frequently has to evacuate from hurricanes, Mackenzie Thompson and her family have never had to worry about their home, as it has always been unscathed.

After spending her fall break serving victims of Hurricane Michael, she now realizes the hardships a community faces after a dangerous storm, and it has given her a whole new perspective.

“The most inspiring part about the trip was the resilience of the people that we worked with,” said Thompson, a senior majoring in psychology. “They were in unlivable conditions, had trees fallen down on them and had nothing. We would ask them how they were doing, and they said they were just thankful to be alive. That was the coolest part – the fact that they were so thankful to be breathing another day.”

Thompson is just one out of the 33 volunteers that went on the the fall break trip with the Beyond Bama: Alternative Breaks program, which organizes trips for UA students during fall, winter and spring breaks. They went to help with recovery efforts in the Florida Panhandle following Hurricane Michael.

Beyond Bama partnered with Operation Blessing, an organization that focuses on national disaster relief, to remove debris and do first-response cleanup for nine residential homes in Panama City.

The student volunteers spent three days cleaning debris and personal items, moving tree limbs to the sides of the street, doing yard work and having conversations with neighbors, overall helping residents get back to some type of normalcy.

Abby Greenwell, a senior majoring in accounting and one of the trip leaders, said she has been involved in six Beyond Bama trips now, but this is the first time she has been directly involved with post-disaster relief.

“I was definitely impacted by the trip,” Greenwell said. “It was crazy to see all of the destruction and damage. It was really emotional and seeing how it personally impacted people was the most moving part. A lot of the time when we do service, we don’t directly meet the people it impacts. We usually only get to see the transformation of it, but this trip definitely showed that.”

Courtney Chapman Thomas, director of the Center for Service and Leadership, said similar to those who showed up to Tuscaloosa after the 2011 tornado, it is a big part of Beyond Bama’s commitment to be a good neighbor and assist other communities if they can.

“It is an incredible privilege for me to serve as the learning partner with these students,” Thomas said. “To watch these students give themselves during the holiday break, when they could be relaxing, is a pretty amazing thing to watch. They were truly a big part of the solution.”

Thomas said the group is willing to go back to Florida to continue the recovery process if needed, and there are opportunities all throughout the year if other UA students would like to join.

“It’s very important for us as an institution to respond in disasters or moments of crisis around our nation,” said Thomas. “We don’t always know if we have the right skills or abilities to be able to help, but when we do, we go.”