People often forget the small town of Bithlo, located only eight miles from the University of Central Florida along East Colonial Drive. It is infamous for being ravaged by poverty, poor infrastructure, unemployment and, recently, Hurricane Irma.
Many residents saw their homes being damaged by storm, leaving them with no electricity and in some cases without potable water. Jacob Calmes, a 13-year old resident, saw a tree had landed on his house not long after he and his family evacuated. In the aftermath, he decided to join his community in the recovery effort.
“People didn’t just sit around and watch the news,” he said. “People got up to do things to be part of the news.”
He was joined by organizers from United Global Outreach as well as students working with Volunteer UCF, which mounted a relief effort to help clean up areas affected by Irma both on the University of Central Florida campus and in neighboring communities.
“It takes a man to help a community, but it takes a community to help the man,” Calmes, who is in eighth grade, said.
Volunteers worked on clearing the fallen branches throughout the community and at Orange County Academy, a local K-10 school where Calmes is a student. Much of the clean-up had already been done the day before, but a lot has yet to be done before residents can fully recover from the storm’s damage.
Organizers canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods for homeowners in need of assistance and would mobilize volunteers to help with whatever they needed. At the schoolhouse, volunteers carried cases of water and snacks on dollies. Some helped set up the pre-school playground.
“We’re out here helping people who were forgotten,” said Todd Currie, a UCF graduate student who volunteers with United Global Outreach.
Currie, who studies sports business management, said that while many residents still have no power and some had their homes damaged, “overall people have been positive and doing what they can to rebuild their community.”
Others, like Johnna Gracik who volunteered through Volunteer UCF, saw this project as an opportunity to give back to a community that “often serves the UCF community.”
“It was great to be able to give back to a community where many UCF staff members have come from,” Gracik, a senior studying social work, said. “We work with people who have worked in maintenance, housekeeping, cooking and even someone who directed the Student Union. Being able to give back to them and serve their community is the least we can do.”
United Global Outreach has been present in the community for almost a decade and funds the OCA as a charter school. Its CEO Tim McKinney has used his connections with UCF and other community groups to build Bithlo into what he calls a “transformation community.”
“Once I became aware of some the issues Bithlo was facing—contaminated and horrible water quality, illegal dumping sites, lack of healthcare, the list goes on—the takeaway was that nobody was taking them on in any organized way,” he said. “I may not know enough about all these problems, but I know how to build relationships.”
One of those relationships is Victor Collazo, a UCF alum who graduated in 1980. He has been involved at UCF since 1984, and has for years used those connections to help the Bithlo community. After Irma, Collazo said, the point is not to rebuild it to what it used to be.
“We want it to where it should be,” he said. “These people deserve as much help from the county and state government that people in middle class and upper-middle class people get. We get help immediately.”
Without the organization of volunteers and community groups, Bithlo and the OCA would likely not be receiving the help it needs, the teen-aged Calmes said.
“The school has lived off of God’s good grace,” Calmes said. “It’s because of sponsors and donations and people supporting us. So those who think a small community can’t do something great—listen, big things come in small packages.”
On campus, volunteers worked on clearing the debris from UCF’s Creative School, the daycare center for staff and students. When its gates were opened at 10 a.m., branches and leaves were spread across the playground.
More than a dozen students worked the grounds—collecting branches, throwing away debris and raking the leaves. Many of the volunteers had lost power due to the storm, but nevertheless decided to work on campus.
“Irma was pretty devastating, but by being here we’re showing the community that it’s not going to get us down,” said T.J. Hamelberg, a sophomore.
The effort was joined by some of the higher-ups in UCF’s administration, some of whom have children who currently or at one point attended the daycare.
Richard Payne, the assistant vice president for Student Development and Enrollment Services, is one of those. Students may have carried the branches, but he sawed the bigger ones to make them easier to carry.
The Creative School is part of SDES which, along with Payne’s son having attended the school, makes the work doubly important for Payne.
“It’s a safe place for kids and so we want to make sure it’s once again safe for them to run around and just be kids,” he said. “Getting this done immediately is important.”
Dr. Germayne Graham, the associate director of UCF’s Lead Scholars Academy, also assisted in the clean-up and was accompanied by her daughters Lauren, 6, and Alexandria, 10, both of whom attend the Creative School.
“I think every little bit helps,” Graham said. “Sometimes you can take your mind off your own situation by trying to help others. There’s no use in sitting at home moping about with no power when you can help somebody else.”
Elsewhere, students organized at the Arboretum to gather debris in on-campus fields. The debris was carried off to the dumpster by a pickup truck driven by Arboretum staff. Clean-up of the large field spanned only over an hour before the volunteers moved on to smaller tasks.
Volunteers also cleaned the immediate pathways and sidewalks around the Arboretum. All that remained were downed trees left to be removed professionally.
To Amanda Dever, who advises Volunteer UCF, this is only the beginning. UCF is planning on partnering with other community organizations around Orange County to help people recover from Hurricane Irma.
“If community partners meet with us, we want to be there to support that effort,” she said.
To McKinney, one of those community partners, that support is overwhelming: “You guys could be doing something else or be worried about your own problems, but instead you’re out here and actually giving back to serve perfect strangers. It’s neighbors helping neighbors and that’s what makes UCF stand out.”
Joseph Klawe-Genao, Kyle Swenson and Aidanna Olmo contributed reporting.