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Grassroots organization takes matters into its own hands while rebuilding Southwest Florida

Southwest Florida’s Gulf Eagle Division of the US Naval Sea Cadet Corps help Rebuild SWFL clean up the mangroves on Little Hickory Island off of Hickory Boulevard, between McLaughlin Boulevard and Marimin Drive on Feb. 25, 2023.
Patrick Kelley for Rebuild SWFL
Special to WGCU
Southwest Florida’s Gulf Eagle Division of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps help Rebuild SWFL clean up the mangroves on Little Hickory Island off of Hickory Boulevard, between McLaughlin Boulevard and Marimin Drive on Feb. 25, 2023.

The Monday after Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida, a group of five created the grassroots organization, Rebuild SWFL.

Co-founder Nathalie White and four FGCU students came together to aid the devastation in areas around Southwest Florida that were overlooked.

“People were looking for somewhere to help, we made it just really simple and easy for them. Whereas at the time, there was no clear direction as to where to go and where to help,” White said.

White works full-time as associate designer at SchenkelShultz Architecture and spends her nights and weekends as the design and construction lead for Rebuild SWFL.

At first, they were promoting up to nine locations at a time from Marco Island to Fort Myers, and assigning groups to tackle these different areas. Now, the group goes out to one location on weekends since most members have resumed work or school.

Catherine Cortes, co-founder of Rebuild SWFL and an FGCU senior studying psychology with a minor in management, says she was fortunate to be in an area that didn’t face as much damage compared to other areas around Southwest Florida.

"I put out a flyer to help clean up downtown Fort Myers,” Cortes said. “Originally, I was trying to get volunteers to go to the beach, but obviously at the time, it was a little too dangerous and they were still doing rescue missions. So, I decided that downtown Fort Myers was an easy location.”

She promoted a flyer on social media to spread the word of her plan to help the community.

"I had about 150 people sign up with their contact information from that flyer,” Cortes said. “I want to say over 200 to 300 people showed up within that day of the location downtown."

People showed up with their own trash bags, preparing to clean as much as possible. She had to create group chats to keep track of everyone. Now five months later, Instagram is the best way for the group to communicate with those interested.

“I think a lot of people think that we're associated with FGCU, we're not,” White said. “We do get a lot of students to come out and we've been helping with the service hours that you need for school. So we're able to do that. But it really is a grassroots thing... We have an opportunity to be a voice for our generation, that is really the future of this area.

White manages the group'sInstagram pageand keeps track of volunteers using spreadsheets. FGCU’s Office of Service-Learning & Civic Engagement has allowed students who participate to receive service-learning hours, which is a requirement to graduate.

The day the page was created, 400 people followed. On the second day, 400 more followed, according to White. The account has 5,121 followers now.

"We were really able to make change because the locations that we were going to were full communities that needed help,” Cortes said. “Being able to really go out and help these individuals and seeing just how appreciative they were made me feel so grateful that I was able to go ahead and help them because a lot of these people are older, don't have the capacity to move things out of their house. And so just being an able-bodied and being able to be an asset to the community was something that was so heartwarming.”

The group has done over 70 clean ups and has helped over 500 homes around Southwest Florida. People can submit clean up inquiries to the organization, for areas like Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Iona, Fort Myers Beach, San Carlos Island, Bonita Springs, South Naples, and Harlem Heights.

“I really don't know the number anymore, because I haven't kept track of it,” White said. “But after the new year, after we've kind of maxed out on most of the homes, a lot of the homes have been cleaned up now or they're going to be demolished. or whatnot. We've kind of moved on to cleaning mangroves, which is a great area right now.”

As the Florida Environmental Protection Agency cleans the larger debris out of the protected mangroves, Rebuild SWFL has been focusing on the smaller debris in the mangroves for the past month.

“Imagine a whole house broken apart in the mangroves,” White said. “Just taking out wood, lumber, stairs, windows, like all sorts of building material. And then furniture and refrigerators, mattresses, and then just plastic, a lot of plastic is stuck in the mangroves, and black bags and trash like that.”

Rebuild SWFL has even found signed memorabilia from basketball star Michael Jordan and an autographed Elton John frame in the mangroves. They are actively trying to find the owners of these keepsakes.

Rebuild SWFL volunteers found Michael Jordan memorabilia in the mangroves of Little Hickory Island on Feb. 12, 2023.
Rebuild SWFL
Special to WGCU
Rebuild SWFL volunteers found Michael Jordan memorabilia in the mangroves of Little Hickory Island on Feb. 12, 2023.

Many of the people who pitched in to clean the mangroves had never heard of the group before.

“We got a lot more people too because of the residents,” White said. “They've been staring at that mangrove, wondering when it's gonna get cleaned and we just showed up, and they just started joining us, because they obviously want help with their own community. So a lot of the older people, they don't even have Instagram, they don't even know who we are, they just saw us out there and they just wanted to join.”

Although the number of sites has lessened from when they first began five months ago, Rebuild SWFL continues to bring new members out into the community and clean up the devastation that Hurricane Ian left behind.

"It's something that I can't even put into words like really going out there and having the homeowners talk to you and give you their story and what they went through with that personal connection is something that I would never trade for the world,” Cortes said.

Information about upcoming clean up events can be found on Instagram.

This story was produced for the Senior Capstone course in the FGCU Journalism Program. Hayley Lemery can be reached at hklemery9681@eagle.fgcu.edu