In December alone, Tennessee had 16 tornadoes touch down. The record-breaking number of tornadoes in 2021 wreaked havoc on the state, destroying homes, bringing down power lines, and causing injury and death.
The University of Tennessee at Martin chapter of The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS) knew they had to step up for their community, putting our mission in motion.
"By stepping up in our community's time of need, we were able to quickly get supplies to families and begin cleanup," Chapter President Kaci Merrick says.
Why Flexibility Matters with Disaster Relief
In the face of such disaster, the University of Tennessee at Martin campus became a hub for the American Red Cross's relief efforts.
"Even though the Red Cross was set up at the university, help was still needed. Our chapter saw that need, and responded to it."
Kaci mobilized with the rest of the chapter and initiated a disaster relief effort that drove positive results immediately. At first, they helped package and donate supplies, including clothing, children's toys, blankets, hygiene products, food, and water to affected families.
But their volunteer efforts didn't stop there.
They also went out into their community and helped with the clean-up, clearing out the endless debris and collecting personal items that were lost in the wreckage.
"Today, most of the damage and debris from the tornadoes has been cleared, but we have not yet fully built back. There are still clean-up efforts going on and we look forward to building back better and stronger."
This community service initiative took discipline and extensive planning. Chapter Advisor, Lindee McCurley, worked in the Student Life Office where the Red Cross set up, and they embraced the volunteerism opportunity instead of shying away from it.
"We jumped into action, communicating with the rest of the chapter of our community's needs."
Many different leadership skills are needed for disaster relief efforts of this scale. Kaci attributes communication and flexibility as two of the top skills that helped the most.
"There were so many different areas affected that you had to be ready to adapt to whatever the biggest need was that day. You could show up one day to give out blankets and food, and the next day, you show up to the same place to remove tree branches and other debris."
Being flexible and able to pivot are important skills for a leader. Goal-setting is also very important, though it can seem unrealistic when faced with such a fast-acting catastrophe—but creating goals shouldn't be dismissed.
For disaster relief efforts, the PACT goal-setting technique can work great because this approach encourages quick action, allows you to reassess and be flexible, and demands constant progress. If there's a goal-setting technique that says just go, it's PACT.
With their leadership skills and goals in place, the University of Tennessee at Martin chapter went into the heart of their community to make positive change.
"I believe that a lot of the people who volunteered were humbled by the experience. Tornado damage is not a pleasant sight and it really makes you grateful for what you have."
Putting Leadership into Action By Serving Others
To Kaci, leadership is about helping others. It's no surprise that this chapter drove positive action forward in the community.
"Every time I’ve taken on a leadership role or decided to join an organization, I’ve done so because I wanted to do something for my community and give back to others."
Kaci's main purpose for being a leader is to serve.
"Being a servant leader is what it means to lead. If you’re not leading because you want what’s best for the group and those around you, the best will not come to you. To me, leadership is something you take on because you want to support and help others."
Servant leadership is a leadership practice that has gained immense traction as society moves to a much more diverse and inclusive space, one that encourages everyone's voice to be heard.
This leadership style has been proven to empower others, put positivity into action, develop trust, and build stronger relationships. The University of Tennessee at Martin is a great example of this leadership style in practice.
As Chapter President, Kaci is able to use the tenets of servant leadership on a daily basis and continue to grow as an individual.
"Being a chapter leader has given me the opportunity to grow as a person in terms of confidence and self-actualization. Through leading both my executive board and the entire chapter, I have recognized my strengths and weaknesses and learned how to use them to my advantage."
The NSLS strives to provide a launchpad for undergraduates in the Chapter President role on campus that delivers key skills to use throughout one's life and career. Kaci is proof of this.
"In my professional life, I have learned how to manage a team through the management of my executive board. Everyone on a team has their strengths and weaknesses, and as a leader it is important to recognize, acknowledge, and help each team member adapt to the task at hand based on the challenges they face."
As for advice for other chapter leaders across the country?
"Look for needs in your community, and once you see a need, do not hesitate to take action."
Opportunity is often misconstrued as something that falls into your lap; but time after time, we see that it’s something you need to reach for yourself. Instead of waiting, look for those opportunities and seize them.
"For our chapter, our community's need was apparent and it was easy for us to jump in and help. We could have easily left all the disaster relief efforts to the Red Cross, but we didn't. We heard the need for volunteers and leapt into action. This willingness and readiness to serve is key to making a difference in the community."
This chapter is proof of why volunteering is important. With this mindset, the future is bright for Kaci and the other members of the University of Tennessee at Martin chapter. Their immediate goal is to continue helping with clean-up efforts, and seize any opportunity to strengthen their community.
"We’re still going out into the community and helping clean up remaining debris. We are hoping to hear more about the build-back efforts so that we can further assist with getting everyone back to a sense of normalcy."
We love to see chapters mobilizing and seizing on opportunities to make a positive difference. Check out another chapter's success driving positive action as they helped out in the Ukraine war effort.