Comin’ from where I’m from

For North Carolina native Julius Peppers, support for families ravaged by Hurricane Florence ‘is personal for me’

The smell of moldy furniture, carpet and insulation — not to mention the sight of children’s toys scattered across Tonia McGirt’s front lawn — wiped the smile clear off Julius Peppers’ face as soon as he pulled up to the condemned house in Lumberton, North Carolina.

“We’ve lost everything,” McGirt said, turning to look at her house, which was ravaged by Hurricane Florence in September. “The neighbors washed our clothes … we’re waiting on FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] for relief.”

Sadness filled McGirt’s eyes as the veteran Carolina Panthers defensive end stood next to her with arms folded, trying to find the words to console the mother of two who has lived at this property for all of her 46 years.

“I know what it is to come from a rural area like this,” said Peppers, who is from Bailey, North Carolina, less than a two-hour drive from Lumberton. “I can’t even imagine something like this happening and not being able to have certain things, like a house that’s in living condition. I just wanted to come down here and help — offer some hope — just to try to do my part with this recovery.”

After Hurricane Florence hit, Peppers started a relief fund through his foundation and contributed $100,000 of his own money. Teammate Cam Newton matched his donation with an additional $100,000. Two days after the Panthers’ come-from-behind win over the Giants, Peppers made his way to Lumberton, the poorest city in the state, to help with recovery efforts.

“It’s definitely personal — because I’m from a small town not far from here,” explained Peppers, 38. “So it’s personal in that aspect, and I can feel it. Thankfully the hurricane did not affect my hometown that much, but it’s still the community, man, and the Carolinas, and it’s only right that we do something to help. It’s definitely personal, ’cause this is where I’m from.”

Just two houses up on the same street, McGirt’s parents — Barbara, 65, and French, 72 — accessed their own home, which is in the process of being rebuilt. The couple, married for 51 years, have all of their belongings, at least what’s left, in boxes and small piles. When Peppers, along with members of the United Way, arrived, the couple had reason to be hopeful after spending their first night in their home since being flooded out.

“Thank the Lord we could save a little of what we had,” said Barbara McGirt. “We couldn’t wait to get back.”

Asked later what struck him about the McGirts, Peppers reflected. “She was talking about how she grabbed her Bible and her picture albums. Those are the first things that she thought to take. Seeing this for yourself makes it real. If you can help them rebuild a home, that’s fine. But if you can help them feel better in some kind of way, that makes me feel a lot better, too.”

Carolina Panther Julius Peppers wears a mold respirator while touring the home of Latisha Jones in Lumberton, North Carolina. Jones’ home was severely damaged by Hurricane Florence, with floodwaters reaching her windowsills. Jones was renting to own the home from her grandmother but after back-to-back hurricanes, her grandmother decided to demolish the house, meaning Jones lost most of her belongings to hurricanes, plus the home she intended to spend her future in. Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Da’Quan Moore, 10, stands outside his neighbor’s flood-ravaged home. Da’Quan’s home was also flooded and is currently being rebuilt with the help of the NC Baptist Men Disaster Relief Ministry. Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Barbara McGirt shows Julius Peppers the carport of her home, where she and her husband, French, are sleeping. Their home is being completely remodeled due to flood damage from Hurricane Florence. Katie McLean for The Undefeated

While driving through Lumberton, photographer Katie McLean noticed a fallen tree at the intersection of North Chestnut and 15th and marveled at how the tree fell at a relatively safe distance from the home. Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Julius Peppers (left) shakes hands with members of the NC Baptist Men Disaster Relief Ministry. Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Julius Peppers serves free lunches provided by the Christian Aid Ministries Loaves & Fishes Food Kitchen. Said Peppers: “I just wanted to come down here and help, offer some hope, also serve in any way possible.” Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Marilyn Miller, a volunteer with Christian Aid Ministries, serves free lunches as a part of the Loaves & Fishes Food Kitchen. Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Lumberton, North Carolina, resident Shirelle Walters (left) laughs excitedly as Julius Peppers (right) signs an autograph for her. “This is such a blessing,” Walters said of Peppers’ visit and hurricane relief efforts. “I am the Panthers’ biggest fan and for him to take the time to visit — wow.” Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Gene Burleson (left) of Hendersonville, North Carolina, works on the flooring in a flood-damaged Lumberton, North Carolina, home as a member of the NC Baptist Men Disaster Relief Ministry. Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Julius Peppers (right) and John Cantey (left), Lumberton’s deputy mayor, share a moment as Cantey’s son, Jaylon, a 17-year-old senior football player at Village Christian Academy, makes a request of Peppers: “Search my [Instagram] and take a look at my highlights!” Katie McLean for The Undefeated

For North Carolina native Julius Peppers, outreach to the city of Lumberton was personal. “People know you for the things you do on the field, which is great, and that’s why I’m able to do other things, but also off the field, you want to create a nice legacy of helping, serving, and getting out in the community to be able to help.” Katie McLean for The Undefeated

Born in the UK and raised in Jamaica, Mark W. Wright is a writer and director of special projects at The Undefeated. A quick glance at his work and it’s safe to assume that soccer – and coverage of Historically Black Colleges and Universities – are among his passions.