Students Band Together to Help Storm Victims


Beth Charles suggested the group of volunteers to pose as if they were moving the boat. Photo courtesy of Charles.

Riley Hazel, Executive Editor

Following a direct hit from Hurricane Ian, FGCU students took it upon themselves to help their Southwest Florida community.

Edwin Wilke and his three friends returned to Fort Myers after evacuating, but their home wasn’t the same. They saw an opportunity to support their community in need and called on their peers for help.

“During this time in rebuilding, even just a warm hug and having strangers show up at their door and hug them is something,” Wilke said. “It really gave them hope. It put a smile on their face when they basically had nothing.”

Wilke, Abby Hendershot, Carson Ware and Alexander Webster got together to make a plan to help storm victims. Wilke had the idea of driving down San Carlos Boulevard as far as he could to assess the damage. That’s when he came upon Beth Charles, a San Carlos Island resident.

The first story of Charles’ house that faces the Gulf Coast was blown out. She calls the bare, open floor “the living room” as it housed the 50 volunteers that helped her clean up the piles of rubble for lunch for 10 days after the storm.

“Moving here, I never thought I would find a community that turned into family,” Charles said. “The way these people come together in times of need has always been a heartwarming sight. Seeing it with this disaster– I really don’t have the words for the kindness, generosity and way that it has brought us all together…”

Volunteers in what used to be Charles’ living room for a lunch break. Photo courtesy of Edwin Wilke.

Charles wasn’t the only person that Wilke’s team aided though. After hearing of the groups’ efforts, Professor Chad Evers, who previously taught a class of Wilke’s, suggested the name “Band of Heroes” for the group and connected them to additional people that were in need of help.

Evers spoke to the connection between students and faculty and how it served as a powerful tool after the storm.

“I think one of the really unique things about FGCU and particularly the Department of Ecology and Environmental Studies is the close relationships that the faculty and our students build,” Evers said. “These relationships have always helped out students to be successful in networking for graduate school and professional careers, however in times like this, it becomes clear that there is a lot of care that exists between the students and faculty.”

Hendershot, a marine biology student, also helped out after the storm. She went home to Daytona Beach to evacuate but joined the hurricane restoration efforts shortly after.

“We’re gonna rebuild, and we’re gonna rebuild stronger,” Hendershot said. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything of people saying we’re gonna leave, we’re packing up and heading out. We are working on making Southwest Florida stronger and better than it used to be.”

As students return to normal operations on campus, Hendershot and Wilke are conflicted on submitting service-learning hours for their work because they weren’t volunteering with the intent of recognition. However, the service learning office recognized the group’s community efforts and approved the volunteers to get credit for their hard work.

Production by Tori Pugliese

“This hurricane has shown how resilient this town is and how much we love each other even if we’re strangers,” Wilke said. “We are all here together. We all have shared experiences and places that we love.”

Hurricane Ian made landfall as a Category 4 storm, approaching Category 5 with 150 mph winds. It’s estimated that it has caused $60 billion-plus in insured losses across the state, according to an industry trade group. Storm surge reached 15 feet in Fort Myers Beach, just a quarter-mile shy of Charles’ neighborhood.

A glove found outside of Beth Charles’ house in the FGCU “wings up” gesture. Photo courtesy of Charles.

The hurricane didn’t just bring wind and storm surge to Charles’ front yard– it brought a 52-foot yacht too. It’s still there, and Wilke expects it will take a large crane to remove it.

Charles is choosing to keep a positive attitude despite the devastation in her community.

“Each day there has been a silver lining of sorts,” Charles said. “Whether it is a beautiful sunrise, sunset, a hug from a neighbor or stranger, a lost item finding its way back to you or just a nice breeze to cool you off.”

Charles has plans to reconnect with Wilke and his group after she gets power restored. She’s hoping they can all come together without focusing on the natural disaster.

If you are looking to volunteer, Wilke recommends looking to @rebuildswfl on Instagram. Their plan is to compile locations and forms on their page each week.