(Photo: Kenzie Hill cuts floor trim outside the home of Vietnam veteran Ray Moneymaker in Panama City, Florida, where he has lived despite his home being severely damaged by the October 2018 storm. Last week marked Hill’s fourth spring break service trip with The Fuller Center for Housing, having also served twice in Perry, Georgia, and once in Lanett, Alabama.)
Note: This report was compiled last week, just before the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders canceled group volunteer trips for the rest of March and all of April over the coronavirus outbreak. They continue working with limited staff and hope to welcome volunteers once again beginning in May. We will have a more extensive report on the Disaster ReBuilders’ work in Panama City when normal operations resume.
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — A group of eight college students — all women — hopping in a van and heading down to Panama City is not exactly breaking news. The words “Panama City” are virtually synonymous with spring break, college students, loud music, underage drinking and general debauchery.
However, this team from Wittenberg University was not headed to Panama City Beach, the touristy area that cleaned up rather quickly after Hurricane Michael struck in October 2018. This group was headed into a neighborhood almost never seen by tourists, an area of Panama City called “Springfield” — rather fitting since Wittenberg is located in Springfield, Ohio.
To get to the Springfield area of Panama City, you must first leave Panama City Beach, drive over the Hathaway Bridge that spans the Grand Lagoon and proceed miles into town. Several miles from the pristine beaches of Panama City Beach, it is another world. There are no more high-rise hotels and condominiums. Instead, there are businesses with signs blown-out by Michael, blue tarps still on many roofs and broken trees everywhere. By the time you arrive in Springfield, it looks like Michael roared through just a month or two ago.
This eight-person team, though, did not come to Panama City looking for paradise or a party. They came to make a difference.
“I knew there was some need because I have family in Destin (about 55 miles west), and they told me about the hurricane, but it sounded like there was rebuilding going on,” freshman Lauren Welker said. “So I thought I’d come down here and have some fun making a difference because that’s important.. But I had no idea how much need there really was here.”
They began to get a hint of how great the need might be the closer they got to the end of their 800-mile journey from Springfield, Ohio, to the Springfield neighborhood.
“It wasn’t what I was expecting,” said senior Kenzie Hill, the group leader who was making her fourth alternative spring break service trip with The Fuller Center for Housing. “You can’t really prepare for it, seeing all the trees down. We thought that couldn’t possibly be from the storm that happened a year and a half ago. Seeing that first-hand and then hearing about it from (Disaster ReBuilders local operation leaders Toni and Aaron Ratliff) and hearing that it’s ten years down the road before they’re going to be done building was something that you can’t really prepare for and something you have to see first-hand.”
“It was just kind of mind-blowing,” added junior Charlotte Cameron. “It seemed very surreal. You hear about it and you see photos, but you just don’t realize in real life what it looks like. When you see all the trees, you just imagine the wind that it took to knock those down.”
New perspectives and a new appreciation for home
Hill spoke from inside the home of Vietnam veteran Ray Moneymaker. Ray and his wife went to sleep the night of October 9, 2018, believing that Hurricane Michael would come ashore as merely a strong Category 3 storm. Instead, it roared ashore as a Category 5 monster on October 10, making its official landfall about 20 miles to the southeast between Tyndall Air Force Base and Mexico Beach. This put the Moneymakers and their neighbors on the “weak side” of the eyewall. Unfortunately, as they would learn the hard way, there is no weak part of a Category 5 storm.
Though his wife was on oxygen and he spent most of his days in a wheelchair, they were stuck in the house with its interior and exterior damage with nowhere else to go. As the weeks of struggle turned into months of futility, Ray’s wife passed away and he suffered a stroke that has made speaking and walking even more of a struggle.
Yet, he never reached out to the Disaster ReBuilders after several bad experiences with others who promised help. Two houses down the street, his 67-year-old sister Sandra Palma is battling breast cancer in a home also in desperate need of repairs. When she was connected with the Disaster ReBuilders, she told them to check on her brother first. The Wittenberg students — joined by Jeff Moore, Neal and Allison Brady, and Chuck Baldacchino, who have been putting in extensive individual volunteer time in Panama City.
“They’ve been great,” he said of the students and other volunteers who have worked on his home. “They’ve been a real blessing.”
Witnessing the damage is one thing, but seeing people living among it has been a perspective-altering experience for the students, especially when they think about their homes.
“I figured there would be some buildings that were kind of crumbling, but I didn’t figure that there would be as many people living in those homes,” Welker said. “I was expecting that we would come into a house that was nearly destroyed and put up some walls and things like that. I wasn’t expecting the homeowner to actually be here and living in these conditions, but it’s cool to come in and help them restore their lives.
“The house that I’ve grown up in has always been clean and clear of things that would harm my health,” she continued. “I’ve never had to worry about where I live, and that’s been a huge perspective changer.”
“It makes me realize how much I have and how much luckier I am than some people,” added sophomore Elizabeth Canright, Welker’s cross-country teammate at Wittenberg. “If this ever happened to me or my family, I hope someone like this group would help us and not give a second thought about it.”
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end — including spring break. The students had to pack up a little early and head back to Ohio early Friday morning because Wittenberg University was shutting down the campus for three weeks to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. A couple of days later, Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders President Bart Tucker announced a pause in volunteer teams going to Florida, North Carolina or Texas, though limited work will continue in those places to the extent that financial support allows. Volunteers, though, are critical, and the Disaster ReBuilders hope to begin accepting teams again in May.
“We can’t do it without volunteers,” said Aaron Ratliff, the construction manager in Panama City who performed the same outstanding service in Texas and North Carolina. The volunteers cut the costs at least in half doing all the work on the homes, and they also love on the families who are in the homes as they rebuild their lives and restore their hope.”
The only thing better than the volunteers who make The Fuller Center’s work possible are the repeat volunteers, such as Hill and Cameron.
“Freshman year,” it was all about the community service kind of aspect,” Cameron said. “But after that I learned more about The Fuller Center and all the cool things that they do and how they truly help people. So, after that I wanted to go back. I needed to go impact more and personally impacted, as well.”
“From the first one I did four years ago and planning three of them now, I like learning different skills but also meeting different people and just getting to know Fuller Center as an organization because I’ve really enjoyed partnering with them for four years,” Hill said.
MORE: Hear the students discuss this experience in their own words