A flower girl smiling in the arms of a bride. Funny faces made next to zoo animals. A sonogram. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs meticulously dried with paper towels in my hands and the hands of hundreds of volunteers around the city.
These are the physical by-products of my Thursday. They are eclipsed by the emotional take-away, which will stay with me forever.
Five days earlier, I was sitting in a friend’s apartment thinking how inaccurate the meteorologists seemed to be. Then suddenly, my world was covered in water. Bridges that supported years of fishing memories gone, crumbling into the lakes and rivers throughout Columbia. Luckily, my apartment sustained power and water pressure. My parents, while 24-hour evacuees, were safe and sound, along with all of my childhood belongings.
I started the week giving out water bottles at a church with my roommate and some college friends, but by Wednesday I was holed up in my apartment writing a paper I had neglected. My mother called and said she was volunteering Thursday on a clean-up crew in a neighborhood not far from campus. This was her way of saying, “I would like you to be there.”
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So I showed up. I had seen pictures, but I had no concept of the condition of houses mere minutes from campus. Streets were lined with trash bags and insulation, furniture and toys. Three Army officers were out directing traffic as city collection workers slowly lifted the discarded debris into trash trucks. How could this be real?
Of course, I can’t comprehend the heartbreak experienced by those who lost family and friends and homes. But what I took away from spending seven brief hours with dozens of people I had never met was an overwhelming feeling of love. We were strangers, the volunteers — we didn’t even introduce ourselves — but we interacted as if we were old family friends.
I started the morning organizing photographs, tearing them out of scrapbooks to dry them, but I spent most of my day handing out food and drinks, making sure everyone from the military officials to the high school sports teams to the city workers was hydrated and happy. I got to know the officers, laughed with those who were picking up trash, discussed Disney princesses with a 2-year-old. Never have I welcomed so many donations of homemade sandwiches with handwritten notes, cold drinks, even Girl Scout cookies. Someone from Firehouse Subs in Greenville brought in two large coolers filled with subs, three boxes of chips and a load of Rice Krispies treats. My mother hugged this perfect stranger and told him: “I’ve been showering in water that’s probably contaminated. Let’s hope you’re not covered in bacteria.”
Flood destruction brings out ‘heartwarming’ volunteerism
We were surrounded by people’s lives laid out to curl up in the sun on their own front lawns, but we found ourselves laughing as we worked, as we came together.
I live in a world of academia, surrounded by college kids discussing social justice, next weekend’s party, how often they go to the gym. But it was this one day of working with my hands, wiping down pictures and handing out chips that filled me with hope. I discovered that I want to surround myself with people who love to help other people.
It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to make me see this, but we all can get so caught up in the day-to-day that we don’t notice the giving hearts of our neighbors.
Today I will return to my color-coded planner. I’ll stress about school work and focus on what to wear for the football game. But I know that the people who selflessly gave their time last week will remain in my mind. I know that even after I graduate and move away, I will always stand strong with South Carolina.
Ms. Janvrin is a Columbia native and a public relations major at the University of South Carolina; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.