Students at Georgia Highlands College have pulled together to help some of their own who are in need.
The college's Student Government Association conducted a relief drive Oct. 22 to Nov. 16 at all five campuses that resulted in almost 300 pounds of relief items being collected to help Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Florida, recover from Hurricane Michael.
The Category 4 storm — the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to ever hit the contiguous United States in terms of pressure and the strongest storm on record in the Florida Panhandle — made landfall in Florida on Oct. 10 and is being blamed for at least 60 deaths and almost $15 billion in damages to date.
Just before Thanksgiving, GHC Student Life Director John Spranza and a few SGA members, including President Danielle Griesemer, drove down to Panama City, delivered the supplies to GCSC and drove back home the same day.
"The idea of doing a drive to assist with the relief to the Florida area damaged by Hurricane Michael was being discussed by SGA, but they were unsure of how to best contribute," Spranza said. "A couple years ago, I collaborated with a colleague in Texas to provide some school supplies to his students at a Houston community college that were impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. At that time, we were only able to send a small package of school supplies, but I liked the idea of college students helping fellow college students in need."
Spranza said he reached out to his counterpart, Student Life Coordinator Lori Cannon, and SGA President Johnathan Fuentes at GCSC "to see if we could form a relationship."
"They were obviously in need and welcomed the support," he said. "I was able to connect our SGA president, Danielle, and the SGA president at GCSC, Johnathan Fuentes, through email, and Johnathan provided us with a list of needed items that we could concentrate on."
SGA members, with assistance from the student life staff, put out donation boxes at all GHC locations, and students, faculty and staff were encouraged to drop off a variety of needed items, Spranza said.
"We asked for donations of bottled water, nonperishable food, toiletries, feminine-hygiene products, tarps, work gloves, sleeping bags and clothes," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of items donated. We were able to fill the entire cargo space of an SUV full with the donations."
After a six-hour drive, Spranza and the SGA members arrived at GCSC, a college comparable in size and structure to GHC, with three large boxes of assorted clothing weighing about 200 pounds, more than 60 pounds of nonperishable food, six cases of bottled water, more than a dozen tarps, a box of various toiletries and hygiene products, six sleeping bags and other items like cleaning supplies, flashlights, bungee cords and storage tubs.
The GHC crew began seeing the destruction caused by Michael long before getting to the college, which was closed for three weeks after the storm.
"We were about an hour or two from Panama City when we started seeing damage and debris," Griesemer said. "There were still homes either uninhabitable or still under construction. Stores and churches were also in disrepair. We saw many billboards completely collapsed and crushed.
"Probably the most impressive part of the wreckage were the trees that still hadn't been cleaned up entirely. One side of the road had all the trees bent one way; the trees on the other side were all bent the opposite way. We learned this was because of the way the winds rotated during the hurricane."
Spranza said entire wooded areas along the highway had been leveled, but the destruction got worse the closer they got to their destination.
"Once we arrived in the city limits of Panama City, the vast amount of damage was heartbreaking," he said. "Very few buildings were not damaged or covered in tarps; debris still lined the roads; and it seemed every tree had been snapped in half."
When they finally made it to the college, the campus "looked mostly OK" from the outside, Griesemer said.
The GHC representatives spent about 1½ hours there, unloading the supplies and touring the campus, and "that's when I saw more damage," she said.
"In their courtyard area, there were large trees that had been uprooted," she said. "We also learned that during the storm, a few boats had been blown onto the campus. Inside, there were still a few places that were being renovated. We were also told that they had lost their entire health sciences building to the hurricane."
The GHC group also was shown the expansive pantry that was organized for relief aid.
"They have quite an operation set up to assist students dealing with the aftermath of the storm," Spranza said. "They have created a 'store' called Michael's Pantry, where students can come in and select whatever items they need – from diapers and dog food to cleaning products and blankets. The institution did not previously have a food pantry so they had to put in a lot of work to establish the distribution center for the donations and assistance that they received from other schools like GHC, corporations or other organizations."
The college also is keeping its library open 24 hours a day so students have access to Wi-Fi and is providing one free meal a day to all students, faculty and staff.
Griesemer, a sophomore history major, said Fuentes was "extremely grateful for our contributions to their relief efforts."
"He told us that if there is ever anything Gulf Coast State College can help us with to let them know," she said.
Overall, the long, fast trip was "productive and heartwarming," Griesemer said.
"It felt nice to do good and give back," she said. "I hope this serves as inspiration for SGA and GHC as a whole to focus on more humanitarian efforts."