‘There was nothing there’ as Mississippi students help tornado-ravaged Delta communities
Published 11:10 pm Saturday, June 17, 2023
When Shari Barnes traveled with members of her church group to Rolling Fork and Silver City in the aftermath of a series of devastating tornadoes that had ripped through the area and claimed more than 20 lives on March 24, she wasn’t prepared for what she found.
The director of the Community Service Center at Mississippi College knew that many residents of the eastern Mississippi communities had been left without food, shelter, or basic necessities. But she didn’t understand the enormity of the destruction until she saw it firsthand.
“There was nothing there,” Barnes said. “There were some overturned buses and dump trucks, and the water tower was lying on the ground. Rubbish was all there was in the fields. It was like everything had been wiped off the map.
“You see the pictures online and on the news, but it doesn’t become real until you’re actually there.”
Immediately, she understood the situation required an organized response from Mississippi College.
“Any time there’s a disaster like that, I like to know what we can do to help,” she said. “Part of our Christian faith is to give to all nations. As a Christian university, it’s very important for those of us who have resources to help those who have not.
“Right now, the people in Rolling Fork and Silver City have not.”
Barnes contacted the individual in charge of the hastily constructed Distribution Center in the gymnasium of the local public high school to discover how volunteers from MC might best serve the populace. She relayed the information to Rebecca Benson, assistant dean for Christian Leadership, and Jonathan Ambrose, associate vice president for the student experience and dean of students.
Soon, a plan was launched for MC to join the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s efforts to raise funds for the tornado victims, solicit donations of supplies, and put “boots on the ground” in Rolling Fork to help organize items in the Distribution Center. The trio encouraged MC faculty, staff, and students to donate heavy-duty garbage bags, large plastic totes, and cleaning supplies. Barnes organized a group of 12 MC students to take those donations to the affected communities.
Barnes’ group arrived at the Distribution Center. Among them were MC students Kathryn Betts, Emma Clark, Katherine Coward, Jackson Earle, Jake Haley, Sophie Hawkins, Simon Hulshizer, Adi Kizer, Emily Latham, Molly Latham, Sierra Lee, and Carolyn Young.
“The people were overwhelmed by all the supplies coming in,” Barnes said. “Items were piled up everywhere – the gym was completely full. We helped them organize everything and assemble the boxes of supplies they were handing out to the residents.”
Many of the students who volunteered considered the trip an outstanding opportunity to demonstrate God’s love and to show the community that Mississippi College cares for its neighbors – especially when they are in need.
“Providing assistance to those in Rolling Fork was important to me because their situation was heartbreaking,” said Lee, a senior psychology and business administration major from Dyer, Tennessee. “I couldn’t imagine life being turned upside down and losing everything I owned in a day. These people are facing some of their most vulnerable moments in life, and a little help goes a long way.
“It’s easy to think it would never happen to us until it does, and I hope that if it were to happen to me, people would be willing to help out.”
The sheer size of the catastrophe moved Kizer, a sophomore exercise science major from Memphis, to volunteer for Barnes’ group.
“It was important to me to provide assistance to the individuals that were impacted because of how much damage and ruin the tornadoes brought,” she said. “I knew that the scale of the help needed was high.
“Our group wasn’t huge, but we made an impact. We served our fellow Mississippians and made the goal of providing relief a little closer.”
Barnes and the college students proved more than proficient at organizing the Distribution Center, and their exuberance in their tasks impressed the center’s staff.
“When we first walked in, I told the staff that we’re here to do whatever they needed us to do,” Barnes said. “If we do something wrong, just tell us – you won’t hurt our feelings. By the end of the day, one Distribution Center staff member told us to do whatever we wanted. She said, ‘I’ve watched you work, and y’all are great, so just do what you think is best.’
“They said our students did more in four or five hours than any group that had volunteered up to that point. And they would love for us to come back.”
Lee said the local volunteers expressed their appreciation directly to the students.
“Even though our work was more ‘behind the scenes,’ it was rewarding,” she said. “While we didn’t interact with any of the people who came to receive assistance, the other volunteers expressed their gratitude for our help.
“I am grateful that I had the opportunity to impact lives in Rolling Fork during such a devastating time. Acts of kindness can be pivotal moments in the lives of others who are facing hardships.”
Taking part in the relief efforts gave Kizer a sense of accomplishment and joy that comes from serving others in need.
“Participating in the Rolling Fork relief efforts taught me the power of community,” she said. “It was amazing to see how many supplies were given to those who had lost everything, all because of the service and compassion of others. It was also a well-needed reminder to be truly thankful for how fortunate and blessed I am.
“Being a part of the relief effort was so fulfilling and something I will look back on and remember for years to come.”
Five days later, Barnes returned to Rolling Fork with a smaller group of students. In addition to keeping the Distribution Center in tip-top shape, this time, the MC volunteers packed and handed out supplies to the tornado victims. A video crew from Good Morning America was on hand that day to document how the relief efforts were progressing.
Barnes said relief efforts for the citizens of Rolling Fork and Silver City will continue. She is planning at least one more trip – this time with a group of MC faculty and staff – during the summer. Funding opportunities for victims of the tornados are still available on the Mississippi Baptists website (make sure to select “Disaster Relief” in the “Fund” drop-down menu), and donations of large plastic totes and paper products are still being collected in the Community Service Center in the basement of the B.C. Rogers Student Center.
“Immediately after a tragedy like this, you have a lot of people who want help and you have a large influx of volunteers,” Barnes said. “Groups show up, and you have help right away. But as time passes, people have to get return to their jobs and lives.
“Now that it’s been a few weeks since the tornado, the community still needs help. They need volunteers. It’s going to take a while for these towns to rebuild. It’s an ongoing effort, and there are still plenty of opportunities to become involved.”
Those who do will be enriched by the experience, according to Lee.
“It’s important to give back to the community, and it’s even more important to serve those in need,” she said. “The biggest thing I learned is that a small bit of effort can go a long way. Spending a few hours in Rolling Fork may have seemed minor to us, but it’s very likely that those few hours of our time impacted lives in ways larger than we can ever imagine.”
“So much good can come from having a sense of responsibility for the well-being of our state by actively going out to serve and support it,” Kizer said.
For more information about joining MC’s efforts to assist tornado victims in Rolling Fork and Silver City, email Barnes at email@example.com.