Trading vacation for volunteering: SMWC group dives into the tornado cleanup effort for spring break

March 20th, 2012 | SMWC

Volunteers from SMWC found the residents of Henryville and Marysville, Ind., filled with hope despite the tornado tragedy.

The van, vibrant with chatter about midterms, cafeteria food and term papers, fell coldly silent as it turned off I-65. Rounding the corner into Henryville, Ind., piles of twisted scrap metal peppered with children’s toys dotted open fields where houses once stood. The beautiful village of Marysville, Ind., was reduced to shards of wood and broken glass, like a jigsaw puzzle clumsily cast aside. Instead of a welcome sign, a slab of plywood clung desperately to a mangled tree, greeting the van with an optimistic epitaph: “God is still good.”

“It honestly looked like a bomb went off,” said student Jade Scott, a volunteer from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), who traveled nearly 200 miles to help cleanup after a series of tornados devastated parts of southern Indiana in early March. “You could look at one house with little damage to it and then the next house had been ripped from its foundation and tossed away.”

Organized by Jeff Malloy, SMWC’s dean of students, and Elizabeth Coley, assistant director of campus life, more than 20 students, staff and alumnae from SMWC trekked down during spring break with donations, supplies and able bodies. “When it happened, I just knew we had to do something,” Malloy said. “We were overwhelmed by the student response.”

Volunteers from SMWC spent March 13 and 15 cleaning up debris after tornadoes ripped through communitiesin southern Indiana.

Surrounded by the shattered remains of Marysville, three wind-torn houses prevailed, one of which belonged to Helen Hunt, who softly laughs at the sad irony of her name and the movie that made it famous. “I’m the real Helen Hunt in the real ‘Twister’ movie,” she said. SMWC volunteers swarmed Hunt’s ravaged yard, sifting through broken fencing and hauling off cumbersome chunks of crushed concrete. “Those students heaved and hoed,” she said. “They worked really hard and made a lot of progress.”

One SMWC student even watched Hunt’s dogs so she could take time to reach out to her neighbors, whose homes were reduced to bare foundations and bittersweet memories. “People think they’re doing something small, like just watching dogs for an hour, but it’s huge to someone in my situation,” Hunt explained.

The College made two trips, on March 13 and 15, leaving around 6:30 a.m. and returning to campus around 9:30 p.m. The six-hour round trip drive gave the students time to reflect on the solemnity of their mission. “We are helping to make life a little easier,” said Jordan Pirsch, a senior psychology major from Terre Haute, Ind. “Without volunteers, the town would not get cleaned up as quickly, displacing people for a longer period of time.”

Volunteers dug through piles of chewed-up bricks, broken toys and shattered wood to find personal belongings that needed to be saved.

During the cleanup, a tumultuous medley of volunteers, victims and military personnel, the SMWC group relied mostly on their own initiative for guidance. “The students learned how to just go into a situation and do what’s needed without a schedule or a lot of direction,” Malloy said. “When you see someone struggling, sometimes the best thing to do is just walk up and ask how you can help.”

The SMWC group didn’t know exactly what to expect, Coley said, “but they were ready to work.” They helped people take stock of what’s left, separate scrap metal and cut fallen trees. “We went through yards and fields looking for personal items and picking up glass and other debris,” said Amanda Vester, a 2005 alumna from Terre Haute, Ind. “There was so much glass.”

As a central part of its mission, the College emphasizes service learning in both the campus and distance programs. “While we provide the opportunity, our students provide the passion,” said Dottie L. King, Ph.D., president of SMWC. “They are innately enthusiastic about helping those in need. We are so proud of these students and honored to have a Woods group so willing to devote their time during spring break to lend a hand to their fellow Hoosiers.”

The tornadoes left behind a wake of debris and devastation.

Leaders don’t emerge during quiet times of comfort. They arise when people need their guidance to forge through tough times. At The Woods, commitment to helping others and building leadership skills go hand in hand. “We present students with opportunities to help others,” said Coley. “It helps them develop a mission heart for life.”

Scott, a junior journalism major from Rockville, Ind., shaken by how similar Marysville is to her little hometown, believes that communities can rebuild even stronger when people come together. “If something like this happened to my home, my family and my town, I would be so grateful for those that came out of the kindness of their hearts to help,” she said.

Thankful for the aid, Hunt, like many of her neighbors, finds hope underneath all that rubble. “We don’t have a lot out here, but what we have is ours,” Hunt said. “We really appreciate this outpouring of love from strangers and volunteers like the kids from The Woods.”

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