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Eckerd College students ‘came to the rescue’ of local neighborhood hit hard by Hurricane Idalia

By Tom Zucco
Published September 8, 2023
Categories: About Eckerd, Alumni, Athletics, Community Engagement, Service, Students

Eckerd College basketball and softball student-athletes with Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach Damian Dixon (second from left), Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach Jim Cantamessa (back row, fourth from right), and Head Men’s Basketball Coach Bryan Galuski ’98 (far right) at The Gathering Church

The Shore Acres neighborhood in St. Petersburg is notorious for flooding. Several inches of water can cover the streets during a routine summer thunderstorm. Many of the people who live in the 12,000 or so homes there think of the rising water as an occasional nuisance. But on August 29, Hurricane Idalia came calling.

Idalia strengthened off Florida’s Gulf Coast to a Category 4 storm before making landfall in the Big Bend region. Idalia’s storm surge brought flooding that many Shore Acres residents said they’d never seen before—two feet or more in some homes. The next day, up and down the streets, piles of water-damaged chairs, sofas, carpets and flooring slouched along the curbs.

Two days after the storm passed, Rev. Douglas McMahon Jr., director of religious life and chaplain at Eckerd College, received word from The Gathering Church in Shore Acres that volunteers were needed to help with the cleanup effort. McMahon relayed the message to Athletic Director Tom Ryan ’87 because of Eckerd athletes’ past assistance to community members in need. Ryan in turn contacted his coaches.

The response was almost immediate. Eighteen members of the Eckerd College softball and men’s basketball teams would be there the next day—Saturday morning—to do whatever was needed to help.

“I think if you put the word out to everybody on campus, the response would have been the same,” Ryan says. “The Eckerd way puts a major emphasis on service.”

Four students moving damaged furniture to the curb

Left to right: Juniors Kent Garard, Mekhi Perry and Isaiah Placide team up with first-year George Kimble to remove damaged furniture.

McMahon explains that the students responded and organized the work themselves. “These were not official college service learning projects,” he says. “They responded in one day on their own, using their weekend time to help in this way.”

“Our campus wasn’t severely damaged,” McMahon adds, “so for the students to stop what they were doing and express their gratitude and compassion is a great thing to see and to nurture. And we all want to see ourselves as a part of the city.”

Brielle Benefield, a senior visual arts student from Seminole, Florida, and a pitcher on the softball team, was busy moving into her dorm that Saturday. “I still had a lot of stuff to do,” she says, “but I stopped doing that. I’m a Florida girl, and I know the devastation hurricanes can cause.” She was one of the first students to volunteer to aid residents in the mostly working class section of the neighborhood.

Eckerd students were divided into groups of two and sent to houses that had requested help from the church. Dante Bouchard—a junior visual arts student from Gloversville, New York, who is a member of the men’s basketball team—accompanied Brielle.

George Kimble ’27 clears debris for a local homeowner.

“We helped one man who was moving rugs out of his house, and then we helped a woman who was by herself with her small children,” Brielle says. “There was all this debris around her house, and we raked it up and bagged it. She tried to give us $100, but we told her we’re here for community service. She was fine with that and gave the money to the church.

“These people got the very unfortunate end of the stick,” Brielle observes. “We went to other houses that were completely destroyed. One woman lost her whole house and all the kid’s toys. I get a great joy out of helping people. I know that it could’ve been us, and I know I would’ve loved to have people help me.”

Janice Roth is the business administrator at The Gathering Church, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church—the church with which Eckerd College (formerly Florida Presbyterian College) has been affiliated by a covenant since the College’s founding in 1958. A Shore Acres resident, Roth helped coordinate which homes the Eckerd students visited.

“I’ve heard that 85% of the homes in Shore Acres were breached,” she says. “And there were a couple of really bad fires. The students did anything they could, from hauling out spoiled furniture to ripping up flooring. They came to our rescue.

“And the people were so thankful. I have a soft spot for older people who have no one to care for them, and one is a woman who lives alone and commented on how helpful and polite the students were,” Roth adds. “She said the kids just came in and worked quickly. And they didn’t complain about the heat or the smell. They just dug right in.”

The woman Roth was referring to is Lillian Koziol. This is a text message she sent to Roth that Saturday: “Thank you, thank you, thank you Janice for sending two of the nicest young men I have ever met. In two hours they saved me two days of back-breaking work. I can’t thank you, the church, these young men and their parents enough for helping me.”