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Govs step up: APSU community unites to support tornado recovery

By: Ethan Steinquest January 18, 2024


When an EF-3 tornado ripped through Clarksville last month, the Austin Peay State University campus community quickly united to offer volunteers, supplies and shelter to support those in need. 

The tornado impacted approximately 50 students, and at least nine completely lost their homes – which drove dozens of students, faculty and staff to lend a helping hand. 

Community Engagement and Sustainability volunteers bring excess food from Manna Cafe Ministries to Loaves and Fishes.
CES volunteers bring excess food from Manna Café to Loaves and Fishes.

All hands on deck: Community Engagement leads distribution efforts 

“We did a campus-wide collection drive with multiple collection points, and we collected a ton of donations for YAIPak Outreach,” said Alexandra Wills, director for Community Engagement and Sustainability. “We’ve [also] given out $11,000 in emergency funds since this happened for tornado-specific issues … and went out and restocked as much fridge and freezer-related food as we could for the SOS Food Pantry.”  

In addition, Austin Peay repurposed some of its campus housing to shelter tornado victims, and several University organizations coordinated with local nonprofits and government officials to send volunteers across the city.  

“I took a group of volunteers and went to Manna Café,” said Community Engagement Coordinator Meagan Potts. “It was mostly students. We oversaw donations, so the trucks would pull up, and they were constantly getting supplies. There were tons of cartons of milk, and they were running out of fridge space, so we brought some to the SOS Food Pantry and some to Loaves and Fishes.”

Additionally, alumni, friends and corporations sent in over $20,000 to fund campus relief efforts, said Kris Phillips, vice president for Alumni, Engagement and Philanthropy and executive director of the APSU Foundation.

Spirit of service: Greek community rallies volunteers 

Phi Beta Sigma conducts a supply drive.Meanwhile, Fraternity and Sorority Affairs worked to support Austin Peay’s larger collection drive and fielded more than 50 student volunteers. The Greek community worked with Mosaic Church, the Montgomery County government, LifePoint Church and YAIPak Outreach to determine areas of need.  

“A lot of our chapters have alumni groups, so we partnered with them to see where they were going and make sure there were more of us,” said Lindsy Perry, coordinator of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs. “[Volunteers] were doing everything from helping put what was left of homes into buckets and storage bins to retrieving items from houses that were torn down and playing with children at the shelters.” 

Perry said the students organized their efforts through a joint meeting of councils and chapter presidents. In addition to forming volunteer groups, they collected hygiene products, unused clothes, tarps, nails, nonperishable food items, work gloves and more for donation.  

“I was proud of them, but I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “I think Greek students always step up to the plate. When we had floods last year, they were there within 30 minutes of finding out people were affected, and they were quick to take action.” 

APSU's baseball team helps clean debris after the tornado.
APSU's baseball team helps clean debris after the tornado.

Clarksville’s hometown team: Athletics programs give back 

University Athletics quickly mobilized, with student-athletes, alumni and coaches uniting to support recovery efforts. Austin Peay’s baseball, softball and tennis teams dispatched volunteers into the community, while other athletics programs gathered and delivered supplies for those in need. 

“While our student-athletes excel on the field and court, their commitment to community service is truly commendable,” said Gerald Harrison, vice president and director of athletics. “They embody the spirit of resilience and community … demonstrating their commitment to truly being Clarksville’s hometown team by joining our neighbors in rebuilding our community.” 

According to Niesha Campbell, deputy director of athletics, student-athletes spent a combined 18 hours packing supplies and washing dishes for Manna Café, working with Mosaic Church to clean debris and delivering food to individual homes.  

“The sight of our student-athletes actively engaging in selfless service was a transformative moment,” said Kassie Stanfill, head softball coach. “I feel an immense sense of pride in coaching these resilient and compassionate women. Most importantly, this experience has reignited my faith in humanity, highlighting the genuine love and support that people are ready to extend to their neighbors during challenging times.” 

Going the extra mile: Small gestures leave big impact  

Sophomore psychology major Christine McNemar finds a beloved stuffed turtle for a family friend.For many volunteers, that meant directly contacting impacted people and families. Christine McNemar, a sophomore psychology major, spent several hours navigating the wreckage of a close friend’s home to find a beloved stuffed turtle for the family’s son. 

“He got that stuffed animal when he was a young infant, I want to say around 6-12 months old,” McNemar said. “He has autism, and that’s been his safe item for basically his entire life. It’s irreplaceable, and it’s actually a discontinued item. If you look on Mercari to find the exact one, it will be over $100.”  

Since the family’s home was largely destroyed in the tornado, McNemar said the search for the stuffed animal was dangerous – but very important.  

“We had to walk very carefully because the wall in the children’s room was hanging on by wires,” she said. “In the parents’ bedroom, you could see the bricks from the wall outside separated and hanging down. One wrong move and it definitely would have collapsed.”  

Eventually, McNemar found the turtle hidden under an overturned mattress – which shielded the stuffed animal from insulation and kept the wind from blowing it into the woods.  

“I was all puffy-faced and emotional to find Turtle, and when I returned it [to my friend’s son] he felt pure bliss, excitement and relief,” she said. “I recorded a video, and you can hear him shout ‘my turtle!’ and he runs over and just hugs it.” 

McNemar and her family spent the rest of the week volunteering independently in low-income areas, with a focus on helping heavily impacted families.  

The Little Govs Child Learning Center helped an Austin Peay employee with two children enrolled at the center after the tornado destroyed their home. One child spent a week in the ICU, and their father, who sustained life-threatening injuries, was recently released from the hospital.  

“It was so hard knowing they were in the path of the tornado and that they got hurt,” said Claudia Rodriguez, the director of Little Govs Child Learning Center. “We always say we’re a Little Govs family here at the center, and everyone came together to make sure that this family was taken care of. It was really very meaningful.” 

Rodriguez said families from the Little Govs CLC took the lead on the project, working with partner organizations such as the Child Care Resource & Referral Network (CCR&R) and Tennessee Early Childhood Training Alliance (TECTA) to create a tree display with several donated gift cards underneath to make sure the family could still celebrate Christmas. 

“They made a lot of really generous donations to make sure the kids were taken care of, from water bottles to backpacks and blankets,” she said. “We worked on this during the two weeks before Christmas, basically right after the tornado hit.” 

Austin Peay’s Help an Elf Holiday Gift Program also reopened to distribute Christmas presents to families who lost homes, and Little Govs CLC referred several families and student workers to those resources.  

Community service sparks lasting change 

The tornado recovery mobilized Austin Peay’s campus in several ways, uniting students, staff and faculty around a common purpose. While the relief effort aided Clarksville’s rebuilding process, it also provided a transformative experience for the volunteers.  

“I think this will impact [students] for the foreseeable future,” Campbell said. “They got a chance to put their boots on the ground, serve someone else and see the immediate impact. I hope this sparks a desire in them to continue to serve and leave an impact … that wherever they go after they graduate, service to their community becomes a part of who they are and their natural routine.”