`Alternate Fall Break' volunteers distribute goods in Salvation Army warehouse

Special to the Gazette

By Leigh Ellen Martz, senior journalism student

Editor's note: This story takes a look at one of four "Alternate Fall Break" bus trips sponsored by the Carolina Center for Public Service as part of its Hurricane Floyd Recovery Project. The center sent 111 University faculty, staff and student volunteers to Bertie and Pitt counties Oct. 14-17.

Imagine 1,000 Hurricane Floyd flood victims filing through a massive warehouse to receive food, personal care items and cleaning supplies. Now imagine only five people on hand to help those victims.

Many residents of Greenville gave thanks Oct. 16 when that wasn't the case, but it would have been if 34 Carolina volunteers hadn't shown up to help out at the Salvation Army's temporary disaster operations center, according to Captain Kriss Tolar.

The volunteers -- faculty, staff and students -- departed on a Chapel Hill transit bus from the Hinton James Residence Hall parking lot at 7 a.m. And despite the early hour, many expressed excitement about the day.

"It's fall break, and I had a lot of work to do," said Arne Kalleberg, Kenan Professor and chair of the sociology department. "But this will be a good experience."

Davis Library cataloguer Linda Brett said: "I've never been in a place where a disaster has happened, and I want to help."

Most volunteers found out through an e-mail from the Carolina Center for Public Service that they'd be helping the Salvation Army. But the magnitude of their jobs didn't become apparent until after they entered the ramshackle warehouse just after 9:30 a.m. and looked around.

People waited for assistance in long lines. Food and personal care items filled tables that had been set up in rows for shopping. And sealed boxes, stacked to the ceiling, cluttered the southwest corner of the warehouse.

Several blue drop cloths split the warehouse in two, dividing it into one section for people and another for supplies. The people side was organized and well lit; the other side was dark, its contents disheveled. Clothing hung out of splitting-apart boxes in an area large enough to hold a banquet. Bundles of wood-handled rag mops shared space with cases of horse, dog and cat food.

While soaking in the view and listening to Tolar describe the available jobs, volunteers slipped on their new Salvation Army T-shirts and signed in. Fifteen minutes later, they separated into groups and fanned out into different parts of the building to begin work.

It was "pretty amazing" to see the variety of people helping out, such as law school students, a medical resident, several faculty members, staff and other students, said Nicholas Didow, director of the Carolina Center for Public Service. It was the mixture he said he had hoped for.

Carol Nicholson, assistant director for bibliographic and collection resources in the law library, picked shopping as her job. She pushed a cart down the rows and helped families select groceries.

Nicholson said her decision to volunteer stemmed from empathy. She lost most of her belongings in a house fire several years ago and so understands the sense of loss.

"Sometimes giving money and donations isn't enough," she said. "You have to share your time."

Sharing time made a big difference in many people's lives Oct. 16.

"I was out of work for two weeks, barricaded by the flood," said Georgia Brewington of Greenville. "You got to catch up on your bills, so you can't buy food."

Brewington's difficulties doubled when friends came to live with her, her husband and her two children. Officials condemned the friends' home, and it would be another 30 days before they could move into an apartment, Brewington said.

"With all those people, the utilities go higher," she said. And more bodies need feeding. Without assistance, they wouldn't be able to make it, she said. Brewington's shopping cart overflowed with food. As she headed for the exit, a volunteer loaded two frozen chickens into her cart.

Some people grumbled about their job inside the warehouse and wondered aloud how things ever got so messy. But no one expressed their unhappiness louder than those who had to dump out thousands of gallons of water outside the warehouse.

It seemed a shame to dump out the generosity of people from around the nation who had so graciously responded to the tragedy in North Carolina, the volunteers said. But because of under-staffing, cases of water sat in the sunlight for days until unwanted organisms began to grow inside the sealed jugs. The water had to go, and somebody had to do it.

The work day ended at 6 p.m. Volunteers ate at McDonalds and headed home.

"Everybody was certainly tired and sore and even a little stinky, but the bus was alive with emotional and spiritual energy that showed how we all bonded in our common purpose," said Barry Hyland, computer consultant with the School of Pharmacy. "I had a sense of accomplishment, and the warmth that emanated from the smiles and eyes from many of the people we helped was profoundly moving."

Warmth emanated from volunteers, as well. Kalleberg said: "I enjoyed the experience of working together with a group of people from UNC. This sense of group mission was a nice experience, and one that we don't get all that often."

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