Students give spring break to meet needs in Florida Panhandle

By Brandon Elrod

(PANAMA CITY, Fla.) — “Awesome, raw power. Wind and flying debris and trees coming down.”

Jean Bartlett remembers the fury of Hurricane Michael like it was yesterday. The devastating storm devoured much of the Florida Panhandle in October 2018. “Some of the time, it was like white-out conditions. You couldn’t see because the wind and the rain were so strong.”

The Baptist Student Union from Missouri Southern State University sent a team of college students to Panama City, Fla., to spend their spring break helping survivors of Hurricane Michael. They served with Send Relief’s GenSend collegiate mobilization initiative to repair the roof of a homeowner in Mexico Beach, Fla. Send Relief is the compassion ministry arm of the North American Mission Board. NAMB photo by Todd Stone.

Five months after Bartlett and thousands of other residents endured Michael’s brutal visit, dozens of college students serving through GenSend descended on Florida. The students came alongside residents like Bartlett, a member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla., who rode out the storm from her home.

GenSend is a collegiate mobilization ministry operated by Send Relief, the compassion ministry arm of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). During the month of March, GenSend held 22 events across 9 cities in North America, hosting 42 groups comprising 567 college students and leaders.

Students participated in a range of activities in March—from disaster relief, to serving refugees to assisting recently launched churches.

In Panama City, students helped to clear Bartlett’s yard of downed trees that “came down like dominoes” during the storm and repaired storm-damaged parts of her home.

GenSend students from the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Southern Arkansas University installed new flooring at First Baptist Church of Mexico Beach, Fla., during their spring break. The Florida Panhandle continues to recover from Hurricane Michael, which devastated the region in October 2018. Send Relief, the compassion ministry arm of the North American Mission Board, enabled college students to serve the area through GenSend. NAMB photo by Todd Stone.

One homeowner in Mexico Beach, Fla., one of the cities the storm hit hardest, described the GenSend students as an “unbelievable, saving grace” for people like her.

“A lot of people are like me with no insurance,” she said, asking to remain anonymous for the sake of privacy. “Then, I’m a senior-citizen, by myself. So, with no resources what do you do?”

Her mobile home remained on its foundation, but a pine tree fell through the roof. GenSend teams reinstalled and painted the drywall once the gaping hole was repaired, and they replaced the entire roof of the house.

“The kids that have given up their spring break to come here are just a miracle, and without them I couldn’t have made it. I am more appreciative than words can express,” she said through tears.

Disaster and crisis relief groups, like Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and others, helped Mexico Beach in the immediate aftermath of the storm, she said.

Maggie Brister, with the Baptist Student Union at Missouri Southern State University, served on the team that fixed a Mexico Beach resident’s roof. She called serving with GenSend an “amazing experience.”

“Seeing the destruction, driving in and just seeing hope essentially lost here in this city,” Brister said, “but then being able to do just a little bit to slightly restore their hope, one little act of kindness at a time, has been a blessing.”

GenSend, a Send Relief ministry of the North American Mission Board, hosted teams of college students throughout the month of March. In Panama City, Fla., students accomplished crisis response tasks for communities still reeling from October 2018’s Hurricane Michael. A team from the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Southern Arkansas University installed new flooring in the First Baptist Church of Mexico Beach, Fla., during their spring break. NAMB photo by Todd Stone.

A team from the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) at Southern Arkansas University (SAU) in Magnolia, Ark., assisted the First Baptist Church of Mexico City. The building sustained damage, such as losing its steeple during the hurricane, but remained viable enough to become a ministry hub for the community.

“You would have thought the storm just hit. It’s just complete, utter devastation. You’re driving in, and it’s lot after lot that’s just been wiped out,” said Michael Sandusky, BCM director at SAU. “Your heart breaks for these people and what people had to go through.”

His team focused on installing new flooring in the church’s sanctuary, a task that many of the students had never done before.

“It will maybe be some hope [for the church and community members], just saying, ‘Hey, we’re getting back, slowly but surely,” Sandusky said.

Scarlett Singleterry, a SAU BCM student, said that she loved being able to connect with the community. “Being a light in the times of their darkness and being able to serve those who can’t serve themselves and doing it for the glory of God” were highlights of her experience.

Another college group from H2O Church in Cincinnati, Ohio also traveled to Panama City to spend their spring break serving.

“It’s been really awesome to see the owners of the places we’ve been to, to see that they feel blessed by God by what we’re doing,” said Haingo Andriamasilalao, a student with the Cincinnati group.

College students from H2O Church in Cincinnati, Ohio spent their spring break helping a survivor of Hurricane Michael by installing new flooring. They served with GenSend, a Send Relief collegiate mobilization initiative. Send Relief is the compassion ministry arm of the North American Mission Board. NAMB photo by Todd Stone.

The Panama City News Herald spoke with several Bay County Florida officials about the work of the student volunteers who brought relief to the area.

“The cleanup and repairs these students are doing for individuals, churches and others, comes at a great time when many agencies have pulled out of our area and are working other disasters,” Panama City Beach, Fla., mayor Mike Thomas said according to the News Herald.

Students completed 43 repair jobs and cleaned up nearly 90 yards over the four weeks that GenSend hosted collegiate teams in Panama City. Teams reported at least three salvations over the course of March, including two students who came to serve with a team from Indiana.

“It’s amazing to be able to partner, to be able to just come in, and we didn’t have to do anything. We just showed up and NAMB has provided everything” needed to complete the work, Sandusky said. “It’s great to be a Southern Baptist.”

To learn more about collegiate mission experiences with GenSend, visit

Brandon Elrod writes for the North American Mission Board.
MASHALLTOWN, Iowa (BP) — Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams have begun cleanup work in Marshalltown, Iowa, following a devastating tornado July 19.

A Missouri Baptist Disaster Relief team arrived Tuesday to set up incident command at Iglesia Karios in Marshalltown. Chainsaw teams from Iowa have dispersed throughout the city to clear debris. An SBDR feeding team has prepared meals for recovery workers in the area.

Additional SBDR volunteers from Kansas-Nebraska and Florida already are on the ground in Marshalltown. Carlson, co-director of Iowa Baptist Disaster Relief, expects volunteers from other nearby states to arrive later this week and early next week. Teams from other states interested in providing assistance should contact their state disaster relief director.

“It looks like a war zone to tell you the truth,” Carlson said. “When you go downtown, you’ll see a lot of glass and brick everywhere.

“On the east part of town, there are about 10 blocks that are very heavily hit. There’s really not many trees standing. A lot of those homes aren’t livable,” Carlson said.

The EF-3 tornado injured at least 235 people in the town of 27,000 located 50 miles northeast of Des Moines. Carlson estimates that at least 100 homes were destroyed. Many more homes will take substantial work before people can return to live in them. Carlson believes it will take months, if not years, for Marshalltown to rebuild.

Some of the worst damage in Marshalltown came to the town’s courthouse and the brick buildings in the town square. In recent years officials and property owners had slowly worked to revamp the buildings, many of which are now destroyed. Jenny Etter, executive director of the Marshalltown Central Business District, estimates that the city had spent $50 million in building renovations since 2002.

A dozen or more tornadoes hit central Iowa last Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. The two biggest tornadoes, both rated EF-3, hit Marshalltown and Pella, with peak winds of 144 mph.

SBDR chaplains are also in Marshalltown to provide support and counsel to residents impacted by the tornado. Sam Porter, the North American Mission Board’s executive director of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, prays the SBDR response will provide volunteers opportunities to share the Gospel.

“[The] number one goal with disaster relief is to earn the right to share the Gospel,” Porter said. “We work with those impacted. We treat them with respect. We pray with them. When they ask the question, ‘What makes you do this for no charge?’ that’s when you’ve earned the right to share the Gospel.”

The Marshalltown tornado comes on the heels of the SBDR response to flooding in Des Moines, Iowa, where teams wrapped up work last week. Eight people came to faith last week during SBDR efforts in the capital city, Carlson said.

Porter and Carlson urge Southern Baptists to pray for Marshalltown and the rest of Central Iowa.

“Pray for all the people who live here,” Carlson said. “A lot of them lost their homes. They lost their cars. They lost their job. There is a lot of a need here.”

Tobin Perry is a writer for the North American Mission Board.,

Published March 26, 2019