“It didn’t start as an independent organization,” Jaz Vanscoy explains.
“It started out as a casual conversation about our passion for our community,” Wes Porter adds. “We found a lot of distress from students. There was a gap; we decided to fill it.”
Hurricane Florence sent more than a million Carolinians scattering. While those who stayed now deal with its aftermath, evacuees refresh Facebook every 30 seconds for updates—many feeling helpless.
Vanscoy and Porter, and dozens of other UNCW-student expats, decided they couldn’t wait for highways to dry out before they stepped in to help. And so they started We Wilm Rebuild, a grassroots organization led by (but not exclusive to) students, dedicated to providing disaster-relief supplies in Wilmington, with focus on low-income communities.
Though the two lived in the same town and went to the same school, Porter and Vanscoy didn’t know each other before the storm. Social media connected them. “I saw her passion [online],” Porter tells. Vanscoy was posting about ways to prepare for the hurricane and how to help once it passed.
“I said, ‘Let’s meet up and see if we can establish our own organization for relief efforts,’” Porter notes.
With a makeshift “office” set up at Panera Bread—a location somewhere between Vanscoy’s and Porter’s respective homes in Greensboro and Winston-Salem—they organized the first two donation drives on September 13 in Charlotte and Greensboro. Then they brought on a third leader, UNCW student Valentina Pantani, who could oversee most of the organizing in Charlotte. The trio launched “We Wilm Rebuild” on Instagram on September 12. Within five days, the account reached almost 9,000 followers. The Facebook group had more than 1,300 members. Plus, they set up more than a dozen drop-off supply sites in cities around North and South Carolina, with plans for more to come.
“One of our Apex locations has . . . reached maximum capacity on donations, [filling] two trailers twice in two days,” Vanscoy explains. “And [Porter and I] are not in Apex. They did that.”
We Wilm Rebuild has collection locations also set up in Asheville, Boone, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Garner, Greensboro, Henderson, Pittsboro, Raleigh, Rocky Mount/Roanoke Rapids, Wake Forest, Waxhaw, and Winston-Salem. They also have South Carolina drop-offs in Clover and Folly Beach. At least three new locations are in the works. More information about exact drop-offs is available on their social media pages.
“Most of our drives [happen] through participation of our community representatives,” Porter explains. “A community representative is a leader who wants to get involved with We Wilm Rebuild and facilitate drives. They reach out to volunteers, who help get the donations back to Wilmington.”
Felix Carlson is a UNCW senior and the community representative managing a collection in Boone. Waiting for roads to clear is tiresome for him, evacuees and especially those in Wilmington awaiting supplies.
“I am excited to see how the larger NC community will continue to help us rebuild our little one,” he says. “Most of all, I want people to know there are ears out here listening, and help will be ready by the time the roads are.”
Because We Wilm Rebuild engages students, it has a unique advantage for sourcing supplies. Many community representatives are student evacuees. They, along with additional volunteers, have offered to transport supplies back when all’s clear.
“Without the community, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this stuff,” Vanscoy explains. “[They] have been behind us 150 percent—it’s overwhelming to us, the great support we have.”
Of course, resources needed also include money. We Wilm Rebuild began a GoFundMe fundraiser on September 12, and by September 17 they had raised more than $2,500. Porter and Vanscoy used the Instagram account to run a T-shirt and sticker design contest, as well. They plan to sell the apparel to raise additional funds.
“I do want to stress 100 percent of profits are going to the cause,” Porter clarifies. Transparency is important to the organization. As recently as last year’s Hurricane Harvey fallout, some charities and nonprofits have struggled to account for donated money after natural disasters. “We’re tracking every receipt,” Vanscoy assures.
The donation drives won’t end when Porter, Vanscoy, Pantani and other volunteers return to Wilmington, either. Though focus will shift to direct outreach. We Wilm Rebuild plans to assemble teams to distribute care packages from a to-be-determined central location. They will establish lines of communication with city administration and local nonprofits, as well as seek direct feedback from neighborhoods most drastically affected.
“We intend to go into the community and ask people affected what they need,” Vanscoy says. “We want to listen. If people are saying, ‘Hey, we need tarps,’ or ‘Hey, we need bologna,’ we’re going to buy tarps and bologna.’”
Though not a formal 501(c)3 yet, We Wilm Rebuild is interested in collaborating with local nonprofit organizations as well. “There are resources [other organizations] have that we don’t,” Porter notes. “We’ve been working with a few student organizations. We’ve been trying to reach out to shelters, but it’s hard since they’ve been without power. These partnerships have a lot to teach us, and we have a lot to learn.”
Folks interested in partnering with them can reach out to them via social media. Everybody can access a full list of drop-off locations on their Facebook page. Community representatives are collecting nonperishables, toiletries, water, clothing and more. We Wilm Rebuild Instagram has a link for folks to access a signup form to host a drive. Money can be donated at www.gofundme.com/wewilmrebuild. Their website can be found at wewilmrebuild.org.
“We couldn’t do this without the community helping us,” Vanscoy insists. “It would be two people in a Panera Bread. The organization started by chance, but I’m really happy about it. It’s crazy to think our whole community has really rallied not just behind these efforts but all efforts to get Wilmington back on track.”