LUMBERTON — Almost a week after Hurricane Matthew ravaged Robeson County, Stephon Lloyd continues to be displaced from his home in South Lumberton — and it’s unclear if he will ever be able to call that location home again due to extensive flooding in his neighborhood.
But Lloyd’s main focus on Thursday was helping others at Lumberton High School. Usually on the basketball court working on his crossover or jumper, on this day the junior student-athlete was in the school’s auxiliary gym organizing loads of donations to help his community rebuild.
“It’s been terrible, but I’m just trying to stay positive and give back,” he said. “I’m here trying to give back to the community and help out my friends and family. You just have to build up, build back and look at it as a setback for a comeback.”
Lloyd is one of more than 1,500 people in Robeson County displaced due to the devastation caused by the storm. He’s staying with friends for the time being, but the actions of people in the community have lifted his spirits during the difficult transition.
“I look at it as Robeson County being a family and coming together,” he said. “I’m just thankful for it. It feels good knowing the community will get better.”
Lloyd, along with other student-athletes and coaches from Lumberton, were at the center of organizing donations to give back to their own — Pirates — and anyone else in need, sifting through boxes of clothes, toiletries, food and other items.
For Danny Graham, Lumberton’s girls basketball coach, the experience is unlike anything he’s seen.
“It’s just an unreal experience,” Graham said. “I’ve lived in Lumberton for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve seen rain, hurricanes and floods, but nothing like this.”
But like others, Graham has been uplifted by the support of fellow coaches and neighboring counties.
“The outreach of the communities around us has been great, especially Bladen County and all of the coaches coming together,” he said. “No matter how bad things are, people in a dire situation will come together for the good of man. We have to help. We’ll get through it; it’s just going to be a tough time.”
Unlike Graham, Matt Hill hasn’t been in the Lumberton community that long, but he’s no stranger to Robeson County. After spending a few years at St. Pauls, Hill is in his first year as head coach of the Pirates’ boys basketball team.
“I’ve gotten to know the guys a lot better. One of the first things that came to my mind when I started watching the news was wanting to get up with my guys to make sure they were all right,” Hill said, fighting back tears.
“You’ve got some that are helping out today that lost everything, but they’re here. They’ve been here with a smile on their face, working hard. It means a lot. You find out a lot about a kid’s character.”
While coaches and student-athletes at Lumberton gathered to do their part to help with recovery efforts, Purnell Swett was doing the same thing — in addition to hosting displaced people.
As many as 800 people have been housed at Purnell Swett over the past few days. Red Springs, South Robeson and St. Pauls are also being used as shelters.
As coaches, Jerome Hunt and William Deese are used to bringing together their players to win games. But each coach has seen a new level of teamwork this week. It’s the type of teamwork that has an impact much bigger than that of a win or loss.
“It’s heartbreaking coming out here and seeing the devastation of what these folks are having to go through,”said Hunt, the Rams’ director of athletics.
“But then you turn around and see 30 athletes here that are scrambling and trying to help any way they can. It makes you swell up a little bit with pride.”
Lucas Oxendine, an all-county and all-conference baseball performer for the Rams, has helped out for the past three days at the shelter, calling it a “unbelievable” experience.
“Once I stepped inside the gym, it was shocking to see people living like that,” he said. “It makes me more grateful for the things I have.”
Hunt said he got “very emotional” watching one of his fellow coaches read books to children at the shelter.
“I’m not surprised they’re out here,” he said. “You put all the wins and losses aside and you find out there are other things more important. I had someone tell me the other day that we may be a poor county, but we’re not poor at heart.”
Deese, Swett’s softball coach, had a similar experience while watching some of his athletes playing with children on the softball field.
“I watched our kids take the kids at the shelter out to the ball field the other day and play ball with them,” Deese said. “I’ve been in tears the last couple of days. It shows that sports can be a common ground for everybody. Sports can teach you a lot about life.”
The power of sports was evident in the school’s auxiliary gym, as people who now call the shelter home gathered for a 4-on-4 basketball game.
For Vincent Bailey, a 16-year-old from Lumberton, the game offered a moment of normalcy — even when players were arguing about a foul call or turnover.
“We had nothing else to do and we saw this court, so we started asking for basketballs,” Bailey said. “Now, we’re able to play ball during the day. It can make us fuss while we’re playing, but it really just brings people together for the most part.”
Darionte McLaurin was on the sidelines during the game, but the 13-year-old was all smiles while watching his friends play. He was also thankful for the people at Purnell Swett that gave him somewhere to call home.
“These people have made it better for us,” McLaurin said, nodding his head in admiration. “They’ve given us so much. You have to find a way to make it and we’re doing the best we can.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @RoddBaxley.