ECU freshman, friends support storm victims

At East Carolina University, every Pirate is called to serve.

Some just spring into action a little quicker than others during times of emergency, lending a helping hand to their neighbors in need.

Freshman Michael Hinson found himself in that exact situation during Hurricane Florence. Sitting in his living room during the storm, Hinson and his friends from his hometown of Wake Forest decided to take matters into their own hands.

Unhappy with the relief response he saw online, Hinson’s team decided to start their own relief drive. While eager to help those affected by the hurricane, Hinson had no idea what type of impact the relief drive would ultimately have, bringing in nearly 40,000 pounds of food, water and household supplies in just three days.

A group of college students, including ECU freshman Michael Hinson, collect water bottles for Hurricane Florence relief efforts.

“The relief efforts that we saw online locally were in shambles,” Hinson said. “They were thinking too far down the line; our immediate focus was helping people right now. We believed we could do it more effectively and get help to people faster.”

Aided by high school friend and UNC Wilmington student Lindsay Rifenberg, Hinson used his entrepreneurial spirit to help get his team’s relief drive off the ground. Hinson and Rifenberg both plan to major in business and one day own their own ventures, however, neither had experience running a relief drive.

“I’ve never done anything like this and I’ve never taken on this level of responsibility,” Hinson said. “Lindsay and her friends that assisted with the drive attend UNCW. In their few weeks there, UNCW turned into their new home. They were hurt that the storm was destroying Wilmington. They weren’t allowed to return to school and it was heartbreaking for them. After seeing that, I knew I wanted to help out and provide something positive for Wilmington.”

Set up in an abandoned Food Lion parking lot, the relief drive accepted donations from Sept. 17-19. At first the donations trickled in, but after getting the word out on social media, the team filled a 30-foot race car trailer and a second 15-foot trailer by lunch time on the first day.

Hinson said that “cars lined the parking lot” and “entire neighborhoods” were coming through asking what types of donations were needed. In total, the relief drive brought in nearly 7,000 water bottles, 982 cans of meat, fruit and vegetables, and 1,152 rolls of toilet paper, among other supplies.

“As the donations continued to come in we were faced with the issue of, ‘OK what now?’ Hinson said. “We asked, ‘How are you going to get it to the people that need it?’ All of the major roads into Wilmington were closed and flooded. People needed these items now; we had to figure out a way to get them to them.”

Look to the skies

As Hinson returned to campus for the start of classes, Rifenberg connected with Operation Airdrop.

The Texas-based charity organization was founded in 2017 in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Today, Operation Airdrop is made up of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots who deliver essential supplies to disaster areas across the country, helping victims in hours instead of days.

Operation Airdrop flew the team’s donations to Wilmington, Lumberton and other eastern North Carolina locations, including New Bern and Elizabethtown.

“What Operation Airdrop does is truly incredible,” Rifenberg said. “Their pilots were coming in from all over the country to help us in North Carolina. They’d contact city officials from all over and as soon as they got the OK to send donations, they’d weigh the cargo, get it on the plane and ship it out within the hour. The turnaround was unreal.

“While other places were filling up trailers and having them just sit there until they could get on the road, Operation Airdrop got supplies to those who needed them as fast as possible,” she said. “It was something I’d never seen before.”

Back at ECU

While Rifenberg and her friends from UNCW continued to ship donations across the state, Hinson returned to classes at ECU where he could have ended his relief efforts. In the eyes of many, he’d done enough.

However, the freshman wasn’t ready to call it quits just yet. After the relief drive saw success selling “Wilmington Strong” stickers, Hinson knew he wanted to continue selling stickers in Greenville.

Hinson is selling stickers to help raise money for first responder groups in North Carolina.

Changing the theme to “Carolina Strong” to be more inclusive, Hinson began promoting the stickers through the Instagram account @CarolinaStrong18. Hinson sells the stickers through direct messages on the service for $5, with proceeds going to first responder groups.

“I hope that I can connect with a distributor – like a grocery store – that can help me make a connection with people in Greenville,” Hinson said. “I hope to bring in another $10,000 in donations. I know that’s a small drop in the bucket, but if I can turn Carolina Strong into a real organization and take it state wide, it could become something bigger. We could really make an impact when the next natural disaster strikes.”

For his efforts, Hinson was honored on the field alongside Chancellor Cecil Staton and his wife, Catherine, at the Pirates’ home football game against Old Dominion University. The freshman said this past month has certainly been an adventure he never expected, but he’s taken away a lot from the experience.

“I knew I wanted to get into business,” Hinson said. “I want to be an entrepreneur and be a small business owner one day. This helped reinforce that. I’ve learned more in the last week about running a business than I ever knew was possible. It’s been especially rewarding because this learning experience caused so much good.”

Rifenberg said the opportunity to work with a friend on a project this meaningful was something she won’t forget.

“Michael and I have been friends since high school, but we never got to see each other go for something that we really wanted to do,” Rifenberg said. “It was really cool to work with him on a project like this. He doesn’t go to Wilmington; he didn’t have to help. But, he decided to and that made all of the difference.

“Because one group of students decided to get off the couch and do something, a lot of people in eastern North Carolina were helped,” she said. “I hope it shows that no matter how old you are, if you want to make a difference, you can.”

Vice Chancellor for Research, Economic Development and Engagement Jay Golden, whose division has led community volunteer efforts at ECU during Hurricane Florence recovery, said Hinson’s efforts embodied the true spirit of a Pirate.

“At ECU we ask our students to be selfless to others, a quality Michael displayed during his relief drive,” Golden said. “Michael stands as an example to ECU students, faculty and staff of the good we all can do to help our communities recover after a disaster like Hurricane Florence.”

Carolina Strong stickers can be purchased on Instagram at @CarolinaStrong18. For more on the Wilmington Strong relief effort, visit the group on Facebook. Volunteer opportunities are still available through East Carolina Undaunted, ECU’s hurricane recovery relief team.