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Two things struck Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers as he drove east from Charlotte almost three hours on Tuesday morning to Lumberton, where he teamed with United Way in hurricane recovery efforts in the area.
First was the amount of devastation left behind by Hurricane Florence, which hit the Carolinas in September.
The second was how very close to home it all was for Peppers.
He is a native of Bailey, which is a short drive northeast of Lumberton and Robeson County.
“My home isn’t too far away from that area, and that made it real to me,” said Peppers, on a phone call with the Observer as he drove back to Charlotte Tuesday night.
“It made it real to me to actually come down here and see some of the damage, some of the people who were affected by this disaster. It just brought a sense of realness to the whole situation.”
Peppers began a hurricane relief fund and contributed $100,000 of his money to it after Florence hit. Quarterback Cam Newton then matched his donation, and Peppers is encouraging others to give what they can. The fund can be accessed via the Panthers’ website.
But he also wanted to back up his financial contribution with action.
So on his one day off, Peppers went to the United Way headquarters in Robeson County early Tuesday morning to begin a day of service.
He joined volunteers as they went through neighborhoods to speak with residents and see homes, and lend support as those affected told their stories.
“A lot of these people had to rip the walls out of their homes, throw out furniture and clothing, throw out everything that they had, all of their possessions thrown to the side of the road,” said Peppers. “Seeing those things, and the people telling their stories, it was an experience that I’m going to take with me and that I’m going to share with others as I encourage others to come try to help out, too.”
One woman Peppers met told him she woke up in the middle of the night during the storm to find her house flooded, and was only able to grab her Bible before she had to evacuate for her own safety.
“One of the guys was telling us that he was coming to help his family, and the only way he could reach one of the houses was by boat,” said Peppers. “So he had to get a boat and ride up to help his family, and try to get some of the things out of the house.”
Peppers joined members of the Mennonite community as they served meals to residents affected by the storm in various neighborhoods in the county.
Then, Peppers and the United Way volunteers helped clean out and start repairs on the home of a policeman who couldn’t save his own belongings from the storm, because he was out in the neighborhood helping others evacuate.
As they went inside houses, they had to wear protective masks to protect themselves from toxic mold that has since infested many of the houses that were flooded. It’s just one often-forgotten detail of the damage that those affected by the storm must deal with, long after Florence passed over them.
“When the storm hits, and the media coverage isn’t there anymore, those people are still there,” said Peppers. “The problems don’t leave just because the cameras did.
“The after-effects where people are having to go in and do these repairs, oftentimes on their own or with the help of volunteers, it’s a tall task…Some of these people are still rebuilding from the last hurricane two years ago. It’s been a tough time for all of them, and it’s going to be a process even now.”
So Peppers wants to spread the message that along with donations to relief efforts, people have to show up and help those in need.
“I just came down to bring awareness, do some repairs, serve some meals,” he said. “But even those small things were big in those people’s eyes. …
“I think a big part of the solution to these problems, and a big part of the help is the volunteers. People actually getting out there on the ground, putting in the work, going around helping other people and showing compassion for your neighbors. That really left an impression on me. …People need to know that we’re all a big community and we all need help from time to time.
“When you see someone or know someone in a time of need, I feel like it’s a responsibility and you have an obligation to try to help if you’re in a position to help.”