By Jeff Whitten and Mike Brown.
Bryan County Sheriff ’s Office Chief Deputy David Ellis tried to get everybody he could find Saturday at Lanier Primary to take a trip to the cafeteria.
“You want something to eat? Go get something to eat,” Ellis told volunteers as they passed him in crowded hallways. “There’s plenty of food here, it’ll feed an Army.”
Ellis should know. An Army veteran who deployed during the Gulf War, he marveled at the turnout of those willing to help out while likening the destruction he saw in parts of Bryan County to that he saw in Kuwait.
“I haven’t seen anything like this before,” he said of the damage. “It reminded me of a war zone.”
“But the silver lining is all these citizens in Bryan County and surrounding counties who’ve made donations and offered their time, it’s just amazing,” he added. “It’s just amazing.”
There was someone helping out everywhere. Organizations ranging from Bryan County Family Connection to American Red Cross to Baptist Disaster Relief to St. Joseph’s/Candler Health System and the United Way and more were represented. And a lot of people weren’t connected to any group. They came just because they wanted to help.
Bao Nguyen brought his son Vincent all the way from Savannah to help however they could, which turned out to be sorting donated socks and shoes in rooms full of both.
“It’s teaching him about helping others, about having compassion for those less fortunate,” the elder Nguyen said. “It’s important he learns that, the opportunity to give back.”
Other volunteers were from just down the road. Jennifer Craun, who lies in Ellabell, was helping sort donated clothing Saturday. She said she and her family rode out the storm, then started doing what they could to help.
“If that was us in their place, we’d want someone to help out,” she said. “We’re a small community and everyone pretty much knows everyone anyways, so that sense of family just kicks in.”
The amount of help she saw made Craun want to cry, she said.
“I’m overwhelmed, and very proud to be a part of Bryan County right now,” she said.
And she wasn’t the only who felt the emotions.
Bryan County Family Connection Coordinator Wendy Futch, who like many has been working almost non-stop since the April 5 tornado hit North Bryan, almost fought back tears as she interviewed families left without anything.
“I know a lot of these people,” said Futch, who grew up in Bryan County, attended Bryan County High School and then went off to Georgia Southern before coming back home to work for Family Connection. “I grew up with them. It’s just hard.” One of those picking up necessities, primarily baby items such as formula, diapers and clothing items was Melanie Byrd of Pembroke.
As volunteers Lynn Bayens of Richmond Hill and Kevin Taylor of Ellabell loaded several boxes into the trunk of her car Byrd expressed thanks for the assistance for the young mother who needed help.
Byrd was there to pick up the needed items for Anya Anderson and her 2-month-old child who because of work obligations could not come herself.
“None of this is for me,” Byrd said. “I didn’t have any damage. The storm didn’t come close to me. There might have been a limb in my yard. Our house was spared thank God.”
Anderson was not so fortunate. She was staying in a motel when Byrd took her into her home. A motel, Byrd said, was not a place for a mother with a young baby to be staying.
“She’s my husband’s niece,” Byrd said. “She was on her first day at work of a new job when the storm hit. I was babysitting the baby that day. “When I heard she was in a motel I went and got her. I’ve got room in my house and it’s the Christian thing to do. She couldn’t come today because she had to work.”
Another family member was sitting with the baby in the car. It should be noted Byrd was picking up only the items needed.
“We don’t need food,” Byrd said. “We are just getting what the baby needs and some things (mainly underclothes) Anya needs.
“I couldn’t believe it when I looked at the city the next day,” Byrd said. “It was not the city I saw every day. It’s terrible but it restores your faith to see people helping others like this.”
Bayens, a realtor in Richmond Hill, had started her day at Ellabell United Methodist Church before getting to Lanier. She was caringly showing Byrd items she had selected for the baby, i.e., dresses, socks, etc., and explaining the types of baby formula included.
“I’m a shopper so this is right up my alley,” Bayens said. “They give us a list: sizes, number in the family and what they need and I get it.” With that information Bayens went through LPS, which was literally a warehouse of items and selected what she needed and then put it together for the recipient.
Taylor lives in the subdivision at Black Creek Golf Course, which was heavily damaged, but his house escaped unscathed.
“What they’ve got (donations) in the building is mind blowing,” Taylor said. “I’ve been here since 9 a.m. and it’s been a steady stream. My house wasn’t touched but I had neighbors whose homes were damaged. We’ve got an obligation to help these people. These are not handouts.”
Every room in the school was filled and each room had signage denoting what was in the room. For example, one room had pet food, another canned goods, another men’s clothing, another women’s clothing and so forth.
The gymnasium was set up with sleeping cots as it was used as a shelter and the cafeteria was lined buffet style with food, much of it home cooked and brought to the school. Showers were available.
“Donations have come from everywhere,” Futch said. “People in Richmond Hill have brought a lot, surrounding counties and from all over Georgia. We’ve also got a lot of stuff from other states.”
Statesboro High senior Kenzie Harvey was also on hand to help. ‘ “I just like helping people,” she said. “I hate natural disasters, but I love seeing how a community comes together and gets through such an important time, and rebuilds and supports one another, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Bob Sprinkel, a volunteer with Baptist Disaster Relief, was everywhere at Lanier Primary, as volunteers with the group helped with everything from baby sitting children so parents could volunteer or gather up needed items to helping clear driveways and take trees off homes.
“Our motto,” Sprinkel, who is retired Army and a former assistant county manager for Liberty County, is “to show the love of Christ in crisis.”
Karen Infinger, wife of Bryan County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger, was among the volunteers at Lanier Primary.
“This is the least I can do,” she said, as she helped sort through boxes of donated socks. “If I could go out and build new houses for the people who’ve lost everything, I would.”