The Sonder Project shifts immediate focus from international relief to Hurricane Michael recovery
On October 10, 2018, the lives of many Florida families changed forever. The Northwest Panhandle watched as weather radar and storm warnings showed Hurricane Michael taking shape and aimed right at the Panama City and Mexico Beach areas.
With few alternatives, Lisa Odom decided to stay in the Springfield area home she grew up in, waiting out the storm with her 5-year-old son, Cameron.
When the storm made landfall, Lisa’s roof was quickly torn off. She and Cameron rushed to a neighbor’s house for safety. Hours after the storm passed and when daylight appeared, she walked out and saw a neighborhood she hardly recognized.
Trees and debris were everywhere. Homes once there were gone. Her home was barely standing, stripped down to the structure. Everything she had was strewn around outside or gone.
“It was terrifying,” Lisa says. “Devastation everywhere, and we had nowhere to go. I didn’t know what to do.”
Jeremy Sprenkle, co-owner of 360 Blue vacation home rental agency in Santa Rosa Beach, and his wife, Keisha, decided the hurricane path was too close for comfort and evacuated to Baton Rouge.
After the hurricane, they awaited word from friends in the area. With electricity down and cell service lost, it was a long silence before updates and the reality of Hurricane Michael hit home. Many of their employees, friends and vendors lost everything.
“Right after the hurricane, one of our partners couldn’t even get back to his home to check the damage,” Jeremy says. “A few of us showed up to help him and found trees were everywhere. No roads were open. It took us two days to reach his house. For days, we cleared more streets and moved more trees and debris. Our core group grew to about 30 volunteers. When the search-and-rescue team arrived, they followed us into the neighborhoods so we could clear the way. No one else could get out. It was bad.”
Coming to the Aid of Their Neighbors
In 2014, Jeremy co-founded a nonprofit, The Sonder Project, with his brother, Jason, and Ashley Horsley—360 Blue co-owners—to do good in the world. “Sonder” comes from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Jeremy says it means “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”
The mission of The Sonder Project is to strengthen communities by helping to provide food, security, clean water, housing and education.
Relief efforts have been focused internationally.
“We established our first domestic project—a community garden, in partnership with another local Walton County nonprofit—a month before the hurricane,” says Chad Zibelman, CEO of The Sonder Project. Produce supports a program that provides low-income youth with backpacks of healthy food.
Even though the nonprofit organization had never considered storm recovery part of its mission, “after the hurricane passed and Walton County was left relatively unharmed, The Sonder Project felt compelled to respond,” Chad says, noting communities hit by the hurricane were in dire need of the same essentials to survive as those the project helps overseas.
The Sonder Project has been on the scene helping with hurricane recovery since day one. As Jeremy was out in neighborhoods helping clear trees and debris and checking on families, Keisha organized volunteers, acquired donations and arranged delivery of relief supplies to families in need. She used social media to communicate messages for help or support, and spread the word to families about the resources available for assistance.
“We found ourselves in a unique position when Hurricane Michael hit,” Chad says. “Early on, we were able to identify group leaders to lead a day a week, and those group leaders would help recruit volunteers. 360 Blue, YOLOboard and The 30A Co. all contributed regular volunteers early on that helped us build momentum, along with marketing support.”
The Sonder Project also received crucial manpower support from 850 Properties and 98 Realty.
“It’s times like these that you have to look for and find the good in the bad,” Jeremy says. “The local resources of donations and volunteers has supported the tremendous progress we’ve seen since October. Many professionals and businesses we knew stepped up and helped us raise incredibly generous donations and volunteers in a short period of time.”
The Sonder Project has contributed 6,560 volunteer hours and served more than 213 households so far.
“Volunteers are generally special people because they have an innate desire to help others,” Chad says. “After the storm, so many people wanted to help. The Sonder Project became the vehicle for many to contribute. It helped that we had established the infrastructure and leadership with our director of U.S. operations, Kim Catellier, to keep things organized and create task lists for each day. This allowed our groups to be productive and relatively efficient, which encouraged folks to want to volunteer with us again.”
Local officials directed The Sonder Project to the Millville/Springfield area because of how hard the communities were hit and the socioeconomic challenges residents there face, Chad says.
“Many of the properties in the area did not have insurance and had extensive damage,” he says. “There has been plenty of need to keep us busy.”
The needs change every day, Keisha says.
“In the early stages, it was a frenzy to check and make sure people were safe, then to organize and deliver water and food,” she says. “Then it got so hot and with no electricity for air conditioning, there were days where all we did was deliver ice for relief.”
One of initial needs was tarps for roofs, since many homes needed replacements, Jeremy says.
“After the tarps were up to prevent any additional exposure and minimize mold, we are getting into the rebuild phase where skilled professionals are needed, like licensed electricians and construction workers,” he says. “It’s a slow process because there is so much work to be done. Construction workers are booked and hard to find.”
Six months after Hurricane Michael, The Sonder Project continues to work with a professional tree removal company, Arbor Barber Trees, guiding volunteers and assisting with yard cleanup weekly.
“We are also partnered with a local general contractor, JP Construction & Design, to assist folks in rebuilding,” Chad says.
A 30-bed garden open to community members is planned, with its own well and irrigation system. Funds are being raised for seedlings, soil, fencing, tools and garden bed materials.
“We are excited to lay the groundwork for a new community garden in partnership with The Kingdom Impact Center,” Chad says. “It reflects our long-term commitment to the area. Gardens are a sign of hope and health, here and across the globe.”
A Life-Changing Transformation
Lisa was one of the first to hear about and apply to The Sonder Project for assistance.
“I applied and then met Jeremy, Keisha and The Sonder Project volunteers in our neighborhood,” Lisa says. “They were out for weeks in our area helping to clean up, and they checked on my son and I. We got to know them, and they told me they would help rebuild my house. At first, I didn’t believe it.”
Most all who have reached out to The Sonder Project have been helped—some in small ways and others, like Lisa, in large ways.
Keisha has helped organize events to bring the community together. She coordinated cookouts and a Halloween day for families, providing activities and free costumes for kids.
“We do what we can for who we can,” Keisha says. “At Thanksgiving, we received a donation of 600 pies. It was a month after the storm, so to deliver the pies, over 100 volunteers showed up. We took wagons through neighborhoods, going door to door, to deliver a Thanksgiving pie. It was a small thing, but meant so much to the families that couldn’t really celebrate Thanksgiving.”
The recovery will be a long process. Trees are still being cleared, debris hauled away, and supplies and FEMA trailers continue to arrive. Tarps are in place or being replaced by new roofs. Crews with The Sonder Project are redoing interior drywall in five homes. For families able to return to their homes, many need to replace all of their furniture, appliances and household goods.
In Lisa’s neighborhood, the signs of hope continue as a new reality takes shape following the hurricane.
Lisa’s home was one of the first to be rebuilt, completed 91 days after the hurricane.
More than a repair, it is a transformation inside and out, accomplished through hard work and love.
For Lisa, it’s not only a brand-new home. It also is the beginning of a brand-new life.
“When The Sonder Project came along and helped Lisa, it changed her life forever,” Keisha says. “No one else has offered to help her like that. Now she is inspired to do good and help others. Her rebuilt home is so much better than before, but so is her outlook.”
Lisa got a new job with one of The Sonder Project partners, with increased pay and better benefits.
She and Keisha stay in touch.
“It’s changed us, too,” Keisha says. “It’s been incredibly eye-opening and humbling to see how families are doing months after the hurricane. We’ve made so many new friends and started new relationships with people who we would have never met.”