Student volunteers repair Gulf County homes during spring break

Houston Bennett watched the student volunteers install his new wheelchair ramp.

“They started off by putting the poles in. Then they laid down the decking and the siding,” he said. “They came back the next day, and it rained all day, but they finished the ramp and they’ve done a fine job on it.”

The poles were steady. He was happy with the work, and even happier about the mobility that having the ramp allowed.

Bennett has limited mobility due to a disability. 

Building the ramp was one of the last required steps for him to be able to move into his new home, his first permanent home since Hurricane Michael tore apart his house in 2018.

“I lost everything in the hurricane,” he said. “For a while, I was sleeping in my living room because an oak tree tore through the back side of my house and was laying across my bed.”

“I was sleeping on the couch until a friend of mine offered to let me rent the trailer I’ve been living in ever since, waiting until all the work is done on my new house uptown.”

His ramp was the culmination of several days’ work for a group of student volunteers, coordinated by local organizations, who came into Gulf County last week to spend their spring break offering assistance and performing repairs for elderly and disabled residents.

The volunteers, students from Auburn University who are members of the student ministry at the First Baptist Church of Opelika, have been driving down from Alabama during the students’ spring break for 17 years. 

But Diana Burkett, the executive director of the Christian Community Development FUND who helped coordinate the students’ efforts in Gulf County, said that while the volunteers have been coming down for almost two decades, the need for their assistance has never been greater than in the years that followed Hurricane Michael.

“They do projects that the CCDF lines up for them,” she said. “And for the most part, we buy the material for the program, and they come in and do the free labor.”

“Over the last couple years, we’ve partnered some with the Citizens of Gulf County Recovery Team because of the hurricane,” she continued, saying that the recovery team will refer them to residents like Bennett.

Burkett said the 180 or so students completed 25 projects,18 yard clean-ups and 12 pressure washing jobs while in Gulf County from March 5 to March 9.

The students pay their own way to participate in the program, including renting housing on Cape San Blas. Burkett said their housing for next March has already been booked.

Now that his ramp is complete, Bennett said all that remains between him and his new home is running water and electricity to the structure.

He has plans to build some additional storage on the property and to put up a privacy fence in his yard, but for now, he said he is just excited to be getting back in a house he owns.

“I’ve seen the bad, and I’ve seen the good, but we’re going forward now,” he said. “It’ll be so great when I’m back on my property and in my own home.”

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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