3 young men, 2 trucks and a cross-country odyssey to aid hurricane victims

A 26-foot Penske rental truck and a Ford 150 pickup truck with California plates pulled up outside the Bonita Springs fire station about 7 o’clock Wednesday night.

Three young men hopped out, pulled out an inflatable raft and began blowing it up.

“We think we have some things that you need,” he told Jim Kauffman, who was manning the station. After more than a week of around-the-clock hurricane duty, most of city officials had finally gone home to rest.

“The kid looked about 12 years old,” said Kauffman, director of technology and planning for the fire department. “I told them ‘welcome to Bonita Springs, what brings you here?’ 

The fresh-faced young men weren’t exactly 12 years old, but they were 19, 20 and 21. Two of them live in Wisconsin and the third in California.

They had driven straight through, moved by the devastating events of the past several weeks to collect a truckload of supplies for hurricane victims.

When they set out on Monday, they didn’t have much of a plan; they sort of put it together as they went along, using social media.

Two of them — Zak Chaouki, and Christian Name — are business partners who organize music festivals and other events. They were meeting with Austin Thompson, 20, another festival organizer, in Los Angeles, when they saw the devastation in Houston from Hurricane Harvey two weeks ago.

They decided they wanted to help.

So they put together a video, posted it on Facebook, and the donations of water, food, clothing and baby supplies began pouring in.

For a week, they stood outside shopping centers and grocery stores, and by Sunday, they had enough to fill a 26-foot rental truck.

By then Irma was bearing down on Florida, and relief organizers in Houston suggested that they should take their bounty to hurricane victims in Florida.

Name drove his pickup truck from Los Angeles to Alabama, and Chaouki and Thompson drove the rental truck from Wisconsin, meeting in Alabama with their cargo. They then headed to Florida, using Snapchat to guide them to the neediest area.

They settled on Bonita Springs because they saw stories about the overwhelming flooding.

“We wanted to do something to make a difference,” said Chaouki, 19, who is taking a gap year from college to organize a music festival with Name in honor of the five police officers killed in Dallas in July 2016.

All three have attended some college, but found that they wanted to do something that went beyond books.

“There was a point, when the police officers were killed, I thought that I wanted to do what I can to bring people together,”’ Chaouki said.

The Facebook video was shared over 3,500 times.

“Our community really was selfless — we got so many donations,” Name said.

They contacted several organizations in Florida, including Volunteer Florida, in order to arrange delivery, but no one called them back, they said.

So they decided to just deliver their goods to Bonita Springs themselves.

The only trouble was, the fire department wasn’t collecting donations, and by Wednesday all the rescue crews were exhausted from working around the clock and had gone home.

The three do-gooders had no where to stay, because all the hotels and just about every bed in Southwest Florida was taken, either by hurricane victims or displaced visitors.

They spent the night in their truck in the Bonita Springs fire station parking lot.

Tomorrow, they said, they will come up with another plan.