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Helping a Neighbor

Southern Mississippi volunteers spring into action after tornado strikes

Southern Mississippi athletes and university personnel turned out in force to aid in Hattiesburg’s recovery. Submitted by Wendy Hogue

An EF3 tornado struck Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 21, as most of the city’s residents slept. By the time the tornado had passed, four residents were dead, homes were decimated, and massive tree limbs and poles were wrapped in power lines strewn across the ground.

More Acts of Kindness

Born to service: Community service is a way of life for Bailey Hession, a senior student-athlete at Missouri. She has traveled to Vietnam to work at an academic, sports and life-skills camp for kids, plus volunteered with organizations such as Special Olympics, Mid-Missouri Food Bank and Caleb’s Pitch, which brings together athletes and patients at a children’s hospital.

Clothes make the woman: The Manhattanville women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse teams assisted The Sharing Shelf, an organization that distributes donated children’s clothing to local families in need, with its “Teen Boutique” event. The boutique aims to provide less fortunate girls in the local community with warm and clean school clothes. The Manhattanville student-athletes helped sort more than 4,000 articles of clothing and later served as mentors to the girls, helping to pick out outfits and accessories they could take home.

Lunch buddies: Once a week, the Lees-McRae men’s basketball team eats lunch with Banner Elk Elementary School students through a program that connects Bobcats student-athletes with the local school.

Teaming up: On Feb. 1, the Hofstra women’s lacrosse team made Morgan and Emma Leary honorary team members. The introduction was made possible through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, an organization that focuses on improving the quality of life for children and their families as they battle childhood cancers. In August 2014, Morgan was diagnosed with a PNET brain tumor.

Soon after, more than 200 volunteers from Southern Mississippi’s athletics department already were springing to the aid of those who had lost everything.

The student-athletes, coaches and administrators hiked a mile down a closed road to drag strips of shingles and siding to the curb or to get on their knees to look for family heirlooms among the rubble — whatever they could do to help the community that always had supported them.
Danielle Block, a senior pitcher on the softball squad and a biology major, described the scene as “surreal.”

Director of Strength and Conditioning Zac Woodfin, who was serving as Southern Mississippi’s interim director of athletics, said he and a few of his colleagues had the idea to pull people together to serve the Hattiesburg community. He sent out a mass communication seeking volunteers, feeling strongly that he might lure 50. He was surprised and humbled when more than 200 showed up. Woodfin said every sport was represented among the diverse group of student-athletes, coaches, administrators and university personnel.

Because of the severe damage, officials wouldn’t allow outside vehicles into the area, so the Southern Mississippi caravan drove as far as it could and parked on the side of the road. The volunteers then walked a mile to the devastated area, and the scenes that volunteers clad in black and gold encountered gave Block the chills. One house had no walls; on another, the back side was destroyed.

The scale of destruction was overwhelming to Southern Mississippi softball coach Wendy Hogue, but so was the sense of pride in the athletics department and city. Neighbors helped one another that day in Hattiesburg, a city of fewer than 50,000 residents.

“When someone at home needs help, what do you do?” Hogue says. “You roll up your sleeves and get it done.”

The Southern Mississippi community already had an intimate understanding of how a tornado can affect a community. While there were no reported injuries or related damage to the Southern Mississippi campus this time, on Feb. 10, 2013, an EF4 tornado ripped through Hattiesburg and hit the campus hard. The school’s performing arts center, art museum, football stadium scoreboard and artificial playing surface were among facilities damaged. No lives were lost.

This year, the main campus of William Carey University, five miles away, was damaged badly, with five buildings lost to the tornado’s destruction. Despite the original intent of the Southern Mississippi contingent to help the small private school, the campus was soon closed off.

So the Southern Mississippi administration then opened its school facilities to its crosstown neighbors. The recovery process has been lengthy, requiring nearly a month before the William Carey students returned to class on their own campus.

“You hear all the time when bad things happen, a community comes together,” Block says. “And it’s sad that it takes something like this, but it brought together every single athlete and person.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.