In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm, settled for nearly two days over the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. Winds of 185 mph were catastrophic to the area, leaving most structures flattened or swept out to sea.

In the storm’s aftermath, residents were left homeless, cold and in dire need of supplies.

When Seminole dentist — and 2021 Ms. Seminole — Sandra Lilo learned the scope of the devastation, she jumped into action.

"Most of us don't know what a Category 5 looks like, but if it's sitting over you for a couple of days, it's even worse,” she said.

Lilo, a 31-year member of the Seminole Lake Rotary Club, immediately reached out to fellow Rotarians on the island of Nassau to see what survivors needed. Within a week, she had collected nearly 700 blankets.

Lilo then joined forces with St. Petersburg-based SOL Relief, a disaster relief company that flies supplies to areas recovering from disasters.

“They have been instrumental in helping with the coordination logistically,” Lilo said of the organization.

The majority of women and children were evacuated from the island, Lilo said, but the men who remained were left to pick up the pieces with no shelter from the elements.

“The men were sleeping on the ground,” she said.

Lilo arranged for 500 sleep mats to be shipped to the men within weeks of the storm.

It wasn’t just the practical needs Lilo worked to better. With Christmas coming just a few short months after the hurricane, Lilo knew she wanted to help bring families together during the season of giving.

“Nothing is over there,” she said. “We couldn't send money because there wasn't anywhere to buy anything.”

Not to be deterred, Lilo organized a group of women comprised of Rotarians and members of the Fang Maidens — a group of female dentists — to put together 100 gift baskets for residents of the Abaco Islands.

Thanks in part to donations courtesy of area Rotarians, including those from Seminole, Indian Rocks Beach and St. Petersburg West, Lilo has been able to send assorted supplies and tools to the islands for the past two years.

Lilo is no stranger to international charity efforts. She has worked as the international services chairperson, which includes 50 clubs, for the local Rotary district, and has volunteered for the organization’s international services since 1991.

Once the immediate danger had passed, Lilo narrowed her focus to the Long Bay School, a K-12 that has struggled to recover after Dorian.

“There is a group of teachers there who are really involved and have made a commitment to these children to get them back to school,” she said. “It's slow because you have logistic problems, but the teachers are great and are going to work with us.”

Thanks to Lilo’s efforts, as well as those of Pinellas handywoman Lynda Mandel and plumber Chris Meggeson, who have volunteered their time to help rebuild the school, it is now operating at one-third capacity.

Lilo returns to the island at the end of the month to put help put in ceilings on the second floor of the school with the hope that more students can attend in coming months.

While her work on the Abaco Islands may seem rather extraordinary to others, Lilo said giving to those in need is simply built into her DNA.

“I never use the words charity work, I don't like that,” said Lilo. “I always call it service work. When you are doing something for someone, you get a gift back that is almost bigger. Those of us who served were honored to have the opportunity to do God's work.

“It becomes about who you are,” she continued. “It's just this connection to humanity — to feel like you are a part of something bigger. And sometimes, we find ourselves along the way.”