Tag Archives: Nashville Strong

Volunteer Andrew Befante trims tree debris.

After losing friends in the March 3 tornado, local musician and bartender turns to service to help others

By Ben Piñon HON Disaster Response Coordinator AmeriCorps member

Thousands of Nashvillians rushed to volunteer in the wake of the March 3 tornado. Andrew Benfante wasn’t one of them. 

“I didn’t have the emotional energy to do it,” Benfante says. “Normally I do — I like volunteering, I like helping people, but the time wasn’t right. Then COVID happened and the time really wasn’t right. It was kind of a hectic time for me, so I stayed away from everything.” 

Volunteer Andrew Benfante
removes storm debris from a
home.

Six months and a global pandemic later, Benfante is more than ready. He has now volunteered on four of HON’s debris-removal workdays since cleanup projects resumed in late June. Some days he has worked both the morning and afternoon shifts — cutting apart a mangled fence or moving heavy logs that came down in the storm. All for fellow Nashvillians he’s never met. 

Back in March, Benfante narrowly missed the worst of the damage where he lives in Germantown. He was out of power for four days. But that was just the beginning. The tornado had also taken not only his job, but two of his friends. 

Benfante worked at Attaboy, an East Nashville bar damaged by the tornado, which is still undergoing repairs. It’s also where he met his friends and co-workers, Michael Dolfini and his fiancée, Albree Sexton. They were all hanging out together shortly before the couple lost their lives in the tornado.

“He called her his hippie wife,” Benfante remembers fondly, “they had been together for so long.” 

“It was a tough night,” Benfante recalls, describing the Attaboy staff as a small, tight-knit group. He had left the bar only 30 minutes before the tornado touched down. “Those were some sad phone calls to make in the middle of the night. Calling just to see how everything was going, finding out that it wasn’t going well.”  

Volunteer Andrew Benfante
removes a wheelbarrow full
of storm debris from a home.

Benfante moved to Nashville four years ago. Like many, he came chasing music dreams. Just last year, he walked away from a band he had played with for eight years. Doing so led to a more recent reassessment of several aspects of his own life. Volunteering has been a really healthy part of that process, he says. 

Through his struggles over the past few months — navigating a pandemic, scraping by on unemployment, grieving friends — Benfante remains grateful for what he has to give.  

“I feel like if I have the time that others may not, I should freely give that time to the community while I’m being taken care of, at least temporarily,” he says. 

Giving back has left Benfante hopeful and inspired, humbled undoubtedly by the way he’s seen the Nashville community persevere in the face of tremendous challenges. 

“I think the less afraid we are of new things, of change, and each other… I think the more we trust each other, trust that everything balances out when it’s all said and done, the more joy we can find together as a community,” he says. “That’s most apparent to me right now in the kind of volunteer work that Hands On Nashville does. I’m happy to be a part of it.” 

Visit hon.org to find volunteer projects that meet critical needs in our community.

Project Connect continues efforts to feed hungry families in North Nashville

When a tornado touched down March 3 and left a 60-mile path of devastation through Middle Tennessee,  Project Connect Nashville knew what it had to do: Serve hot meals to North Nashville residents whose neighborhoods had been badly damaged.

The day after the storm, PCN — whose mission is to build relationships with individuals stuck in a cycle of poverty and connect them to the faith community, living wage jobs, and stable housing — established a central command for recovery, food, and supplies distribution.

PCN employees Quanita Thomas and the Rev. Ella Clay were essential in startup operations. Clay offered the church at which she pastors, the Historic First Community Church at 1815 Knowles St., and Thomas assisted with making connections in the neighborhood, helping even though her own home was damaged by the storm.

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Volunteers feed those in North Nashville following the March 3 tornado. [Project Connect Nashville]
Volunteers immediately began tracking of the needs of the neighborhood’s residents: Who lived where, how many meals each house needed, and even whether a home had names to add to their ongoing prayer list. The first two weeks after the storm were the most demanding because many of the homes did not have power, said Laura Ingram, PCN’s North Nashville Location Manager.

“We have about 400 addresses of people who we try to feed multiple times a week,” Ingram said. Those residents include families and those whose mobility is limited, such as seniors and individuals with disabilities, who otherwise would not have been able to access food in the wake of the disaster.

PCN, in partnership with Just the Crumbs — a faith-based mobile food unit from Columbia, Miss. — now serves and delivers meals five days a week, and offers essential resources to the community two hours a day at its North Nashville Resource Center at 1811 Knowles Street.

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Just The Crumbs is a disaster relief ministry that has been aiding PCN with food distribution efforts in North Nashville. [Project Connect Nashville]
When COVID-19 got a foothold in Middle Tennessee two weeks after the tornado and more people began staying at home, Ingram says PCN’s volunteer numbers began to dwindle. But she and her colleagues continued their efforts.

“Serving people food was something we really felt we needed to keep doing as it’s too risky for the elderly and disabled to get out and shop for fresh foods,” Ingram says.

As a precaution, PCN is limiting volunteer groups to six people, who are asked to maintain a safe distance when delivering meals. The organization provides gloves, and volunteers are asked to bring their own masks if possible.

“These volunteers are invaluable to us because PCN feels it does take a village to love this wide variety of people and neighborhoods,” Ingram says. “It’s something we can’t do alone, but together we are able to check on everybody and make sure no one is falling through the cracks.”

The idea for Project Connect Nashville was birthed out of the 2010 flood, when PCN’s executive director, Alan Murdock, coordinated recovery in partnership with the East Nashville community through his garden center in Five Points. The organization has now opened campuses in South and North Nashville, and offers classes to provide knowledge, skills, and encouragement, while offering a faith community to support individuals through life’s joys and struggles.

To volunteer with Project Connect Nashville, sign up here. For a list of needed donations, click here.

For the Community Resource Center, volunteers are key to meeting critical needs

The days since a tornado tore through Middle Tennessee just over a month ago have been long and exhausting for Tina Doniger and Maria Amado, who serve as the executive director and board chair, respectively, of the Community Resource Center. The CRC, which regularly supplies basic essentials to agencies serving vulnerable populations in more than 24 counties, was activated following the storm to serve as Metro Nashville’s collection and distribution point for donations deployed to survivors throughout the region.

For Doniger and Amado, even though the days sometimes blur together, it’s the acts of kindness and generosity that stand out.

Amado shares the story of Levi, a 3-year-old boy who came to the center with his grandmother to drop off donations.

“Levi is about 3 and a half, 4 years old, and he is sucking his thumb,” Amado recalls, retrieving a sandwich bag of coins and dollar bills from across the room. “And he had emptied out his piggy bank. For the kids who lost their homes.”

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Joe Pollard, left, hands the keys of his newly donated truck to the Community Resource Center’s Maria Amado, center, and Tina Doniger, right.

Then there’s Joe Pollard, president of the Bank of Odessa, Mo., who, upon realizing the CRC didn’t have a box truck of their own, donated the one he had driven down to donate supplies. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that left Doniger and Amado speechless.

The stories of generosity add up — volunteers who came for two hours and stayed for two weeks, those who took time off from their own jobs to volunteer, those who donated knowledge and skills to help the CRC expand its reach — and take the shape of a community pulling together to make an impact far greater than could have been made by one or two individuals.

As COVID-19 sent shock waves through the region, complicating tornado relief efforts and compounding community needs, Doniger says the CRC has continued to evolve its disaster response to meet those rapidly shifting needs.

“The service we provide is essential for people moving forward,” says Doniger — who is the CRC’s sole paid employee. “There’s now even more added pressure on the people who have been serving, and more added pressure on us to find people to help.”

Keeping volunteers healthy is top of mind for Doniger, who says she provides every safety measure she can for volunteers. She provides gloves, masks, and disinfectant. Within the warehouse, volunteers stay apart, sorting their donations on their respective shelves. Donation drop-offs are now conducted without any person-to-person contact.

“The only way to keep going is for people to help us do the work,” Doniger said. “If we don’t continue doing what we do, we won’t be prepared to service the people. As long as we are healthy, and we can open this door, we are going to serve people no matter what.”

To aid the CRC in its mission of serving those in need, sign up to volunteer here.