As soon as Hurricane Ian swept through Fort Myers and its vicinity, USF community members sprang into action. From collecting donations to hosting clean-up missions and lending professional expertise, faculty, staff and students are continuing efforts to support those in need.
Nearly 4% of USF students are from southwest Florida. USF is helping support these students through the United Support Fund, which was established during the pandemic to provide a safety net that allows Bulls to focus on their studies.
Mental health is a priority at the university and was the first concern for College of Behavioral and Community Sciences Assistant Instructor Chris Groeber and Assistant Professor Pam Alvarez during the hurricane. They’re contracted through the Florida Department of Children and Families to provide mental health support to its employees. The ongoing program has been especially beneficial to those in the Suncoast Region.
“This has been an opportunity to help the helpers,” said Groeber, who teaches in the School of Social Work. “The stories I heard were harrowing and scary, but they all ended with incredible positivity about how they would move forward. Some described swimming from their homes to reach safety, laying on top of their children while the roof was ripped off and yet, they were so very thankful.
Many of Groeber and Alvarez’s former students and colleagues work for DCF. In the first session offered days after the storm, more than 60 people joined the online discussions to share their experiences surviving the storm.
“That relationship just takes on a new face,” Groeber said. “I’m no longer your teacher, I'm your colleague that supports you now.”
They say that this experience proves how universities play an important role in building professional networks that go beyond preparing students for careers.
“I worked alongside these professionals for many years, and I feel like it’s a responsibility to give back what I can,” Alvarez said. “I am very privileged to work at USF and I need to make use of that and also give back to communities who’ve worked with me
The associate professors visited Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, which became a food distribution center.
“It could have been us,” said Geveryl Robinson, assistant professor of instruction in the Department of English at the USF St. Petersburg campus and vice president faculty liaison for the Black Faculty and Staff Association. “Here in St. Petersburg, there was a gargantuan tree around the corner that fell and the whole ground shook.”
Shortly after another tree missed her bedroom by a few inches, Robinson turned her attention to Dunbar – a predominantly Black community in Lee County where she spent many summers visiting her grandparents.
In addition to the BFSA, she’s now working closely with several organizations, such as her church group, Dominion Helping Hand Ministry, and the NAACP in Lee County to assist those impacted by the storm. Together, they’ve organized collection sites and delivered donated supplies, such as cooking and cleaning items, batteries and nonperishable food items. They’ve also purchased gas cards to help Dunbar residents refuel their vehicles. The Office of Multicultural Affairs in the Marshall Student Center continues to collect donations.
“This is about doing what's right and helping people,” Robinson said. “If I had been in the same situation, I would hope that someone would also help me.
As the region’s largest university, the support provided by faculty, staff, students, alumni and community partners is crucial. The university’s infrastructure helps them rally volunteers, donations and useful information that aids recovery efforts.
Assistant Professor Christa Remington interviews a resident impacted by Hurricane Ian
Members of Student Government on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus have volunteered to clean up damaged schools in Sarasota County.
The Florida Small Business Development Center located at USF is educating the community about available disaster relief programs.
Following her data collection along Interstate 75 ahead of Hurricane Ian, geosciences Professor Jennifer Collins is advancing her research on evacuation behavior. She’s disseminating a survey to residents to learn about their decision-making process and risk perception. To participate, the survey can be found here.