HORIZON WEST Jen Dubasak has seen the devastation Hurricane Michael left behind in Panama City firsthand — in fact, she said, it looks more like a tornado whipped through and left destruction in its wake.
“Living in Florida we’ve all seen hurricanes,” said Dubasak, a Winter Garden resident. “You get so used to it, but I was completely shocked that it looks more like a tornado came in and wiped everything out. It’s literally changed the landscape and it’s not just Panama City, its Panama City and the surrounding areas. I would say there’s a good 40-mile radius that’s just been devastated. Almost every single tree is down, lines are hanging down, signs from businesses are gone, it looks like a tornado came in. There’s no words to describe it.”
Dubasak’s parents and brothers live in Panama City. Her parents’ house was left uninhabitable, as was her older brother’s home. Her other brother had a tree fall on his house. After she saw the damage for herself, she came back to Winter Garden and spoke with her pastor at Kensington Church Orlando about it.
“The church found out about (the devastation) and they’d been asking how they can help,” she said. “We have another friend of the church that said, ‘Hey, we know someone that has a semi truck, and if you want to try to fill it we can donate that.’ Everyone felt that we had to do something.”
Kensington Church Orlando meets at Windermere Preparatory School each week, and Windermere Prep agreed to let the church park the semi on campus for a week and to help collect donations for the hurricane victims. Church members, school families and the community at large were invited to donate new or gently used items that would be delivered straight to hurricane victims, and collections were taken from Oct. 20 to 28.
“It was one of those things that is just amazing,” Dubasak said. “We were all kind of like, ‘OK, wow, we have a semi to fill.’ We started getting donations from Michigan and from all over, and some people sent cash to buy things to fill it up. We had plywood, generators, wheelbarrows…people collectively got their families and went out and brought stuff in. It was amazing to see all throughout the week. It wasn't just canned food here and there, it was huge items that people wanted to jump in and collect.”
Everyone from Girl Scouts and church members to local businesses and residents pitched in to pack the semi, and as word spread more people jumped on board to help. From pet food and bottled water to plywood, chainsaws and tarps, enough items were collected to fill half of the semi, when packed from floor to ceiling.
“Luckily we had a couple of the guys with our church that researched and talked to the truck driver, who were there daily and helped pack it in (properly),” she said. “They figured it out and it was literally from the floor to the ceiling that they put items. We saw the truck and we were surprised at how much room there was. It’s a 63-foot truck, and once you pack all the things in there top to bottom, there was more space than we thought They did a great job packing it in, and they were everywhere from young to old helping pack things each and every evening.”
The truck left Monday, Oct. 29, for its droopy destination at St. Andrew Baptist Church in Panama City, which currently is serving as the donation and relief hub for some of the most devastated surrounding areas. With the help of other organizations, the church has been able to feed people and offer a place for victims to “shop” for necessities, take showers and do laundry.
“That’s a beautiful thing to see,” Dubasak said. “People chose to live there (in Panama City), generations have lived there and it’s all mom-and-pop businesses. The majority of people there work at those businesses, so not only did they lose their home, they also lost their place of employment.
“The people in that area have been nothing but appreciative of all the help coming in,” she said. “Being there and getting to see the people getting donations and seeing that they’re just so grateful for it (is amazing). That’s what we've been telling everyone. It’s a good feeling knowing we were able to do something.”