Susan Harrison (left) rented a U-Haul and delivered 100 gift bags to families in her hometown of Panama City who are still reeling from Hurricane Michael.

While it’s now been nearly three months since Hurricane Michael ravaged Florida’s panhandle on October 10, many of its residents are still homeless and very much in need.

New Tampa resident Susan Harrison’s hometown of Panama City was devastated by the storm and she wanted to do something to help.

Harrison is the wife of former Florida House District 63 Representative Shawn Harrison, who lost his re-election bid in November.

“Right now, 75 percent of the structures in Panama City have been destroyed,” Susan says. “It’s the weirdest thing to have to use my GPS to get around my hometown. I don’t recognize anything.”

Right after the storm, Susan collected about 100 blankets and sleeping bags from friends and neighbors and delivered them directly to the schools that were being used as shelters.

At that time, she says she and her sister looked at all the kids who are now homeless — she says 3,800 school kids are still living in tents in the panhandle — and said to each other, “We need to get these kids some Christmas.”

Susan says she believed there were people back in New Tampa who would like to help, so she decided to reach out to them.

When Susan shared her idea with her Bible study and posted it on Facebook, she says the idea took off.

Her friends and fellow New Tampa residents Sharon Kaelin, Tracy Guice and Lori Bleckley all jumped in to help, and their efforts spread exponentially.

“So many people have come together to donate things to make this happen,” says Susan. “Probably 60-70 people have donated and made it what it is.”

“We had 100 bags filled to the brim,” she added, and delivered them to Panama City just before Christmas.

They packed large shopping bags full of both essentials and things people would want. There are some for women, some for boys and some for girls, including babies, toddlers, kids and teenagers.

“Each one had a blanket, socks, hat, gloves, toothbrush and toothpaste,” she says, “and then the kids’ have toys such as soccer balls, baby dolls, footballs and cars, while the women’s bags have makeup, lotion and soap.”

Lori’s Bible study, called Community Bible Study, which is held at St. James United Methodist Church, donated a devotion book and wrote Bible verses and tied them to the outside of the bags for encouragement.

Sharon came up with the idea to ask kids from the Young Life club at Wharton High to donate candy bars, so that people of all ages had a hand in contributing gifts to the kids of Panama City. About 100 candy bars were donated by high school students from Wharton for the effort.

Making The Connection

To distribute the bags to those in need, Susan connected with an organization in Panama City that typically helps pets. When the storm hit, the organization’s founder, Lisa Jackson, quickly found homes for many pets whose families could no longer care for them because they lost their homes.

Once she had the animals settled in temporary homes while their owners tried to re-build their lives, Lisa realized that the only way to get the pets home was to help the people.

“Lisa has so many great connections and got people to come from all over to come and take the dogs and cats out,” Susan explains. “She has a big storage unit she usually uses for dog food, but now she’s using it to help get people back up and running, so the dogs and cats can go back home.”

Susan says the devastation in Panama City is a truly long-term problem that will need attention in the months to come. She explains that even families who have insurance on their homes may be stuck, as their jobs have disappeared and they can’t afford the deductible to rebuild their homes, which can easily cost $10,000 or more.

At least during the holidays, though, many of those families were brought a little Christmas cheer, thanks to the generosity of people who live more than 300 miles away.

“It’s an opportunity for people to realize that Christmas is really about giving, and that people are hurting,” explains Susan. “As hard as life as can be for us, there are people who are without basic needs, people who did everything right. Mother Nature is Mother Nature. She came through and she doesn’t discriminate.”

After receiving bags for her family, a mom in Panama City sent Susan a text message that said: “Thank you so much for the gift bags. There’s definitely something for everyone in them. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done for my family, so thank you again from the bottom of my heart.”

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