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Hot meals and warm hugs
Statesboro and Bulloch County residents lend a hand to Irma-battered Brunswick
Brunswick resident Rosa Thomas, 61, gives a grateful hug to volunteer Chad Charping of Statesboro during Wednesday's food distribution by Statesboro and Bulloch County volunteers. (Statesboro Herald photo/Scott Bryant)

The effects of Hurricane Irma were widespread at an unprecedented level, with the entire states of Florida and Georgia experiencing her wrath. In Statesboro and Bulloch County, however, Irma was no Matthew. Last year’s hurricane caused much more local damage and caused more, longer-lasting power outages

Matthew better prepared local charities and volunteer organizations for the next big storm. This time they were ready when Irma hit. After Irma passed over, they went into action, serving 1,500 hot meals to local residents experiencing power outages on Tuesday out of First United Methodist Church.

Tuesday evening, a Facebook call went out from the Bulloch Volunteers Organize Active in Disaster (VOAD) for volunteers to prepare grocery bags from 30 pallets of non-perishable food for distribution stored at the Bulloch County Resource Center warehouse. Within the hour, dozens of volunteers formed a human conveyor line and quickly assembled grocery bags, each weighing 30-40lbs.

[See photos on the Herald's Facebook page]

It was quickly becoming clear that Bulloch County simply didn’t have the dire need for the supplies, and organizers began reaching out to other communities where Irma had been more impactful. Brunswick Police Chief Kevin Jones and Mayor Cornell Harvey made the necessary arrangements to allow for entry into Glynn County, where entrance has been restricted by the National Guard and State Police due to widespread power outages, water shortages, and debris cleanup from the storm.

Initially, volunteers led by Chris Yaughn of Fostering Bulloch and John Long of Christian Social Ministries transported 400 grocery bags, water and juice, as well as a portable kitchen supplied by Broken Shackle Ranch. When the convoy arrived at McIntyre Court, they set up shop with the help of the Brunswick Police department and the Georgia National Guard. A small trickle of local residents approached, but word spread quickly. While some found their way by car, most arrived on foot or bicycle, where they filled their arms and baskets and stood in line for a hot spaghetti dinner.

"It was God's blessing that these people came here to feed the neighborhood," said Virginia Stephens, who first came for a bag of groceries and later returned with friends for a hot meal and some socializing. Stephens expressed a common sentiment. She was grateful for the help, but realized it could have been a lot worse had Irma made landfall according to early predictions. "A lot of people lost their house. A lot of stores up under water and stuff like that. But God brought us through. This is a praying town, as you can see. There's a church on almost every corner!"

A large percentage of food-providing businesses in Brunswick were closed due to flooding and power outage, so groceries were in high demand. The 400 bags disappeared so quickly that Long made a return trip to Statesboro, where another 400 bags of groceries were assembled and transported to Brunswick for afternoon and evening distribution. Joe Bill Brannon and the Statesboro Food Bank also joined the cause Wednesday afternoon, transporting a truckload of cleaning supplies for Brunswick residents.

The volunteer response has been quick and strong, both in Statesboro and in Brunswick. Social media played a large role in getting the word out. On Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, over 1,000 volunteers showed up at the Resource Center and assembled another 1,500 grocery bags which were distributed in Brunswick Thursday.

Brunswick residents were quick to join the cause, as well. René Griffis had no power or water in her home after the storm, but saw a call on Facebook for volunteers and decided to get out and help. She became the designated “hug lady,” making sure everyone who stood in line for a hot meal had a hug and some encouragement. "It's a little out of my comfort zone, but I had a hot meal for the first time in three days yesterday, so I know how important this is."

Mary Catherine Smeltzer and son Hudson, 11, came out to lend a hand to those who were much less fortunate than they were. Despite living on St. Simons Island, they were spared destruction from Irma and had power and water. She found out about the distribution on Facebook and decided to volunteer.

As cleanup continued, power was restored, and bigger organizations such as the Red Cross ramped up their efforts, Statesboro’s and Bulloch County’s involvement in Brunswick wound down Thursday.

“We’re just fortunate that God has seen fit to trust us with resources, and we refuse to sit on them when we can bring them to bear to serve hurt and struggling people,” said Chris Yaughn. “We’ve got the entire gamut of our community willing to bring whatever resources we have to help other people.”


[Go to photo gallery on the Herald's Facebook page]

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