While most Western State Colorado University students spent their Thanksgiving holiday with family and loved ones, one group of students and their professor volunteered their vacation to participate in hurricane Sandy relief efforts in New York.
Caroline Mitchell, associate professor of sociology at Western, led a group of 46 students to participate in relief efforts in 2005 during the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Mitchell recently connected with Western alum Heidi Schacht, who participated in the 2005 project, and who now lives in Long Island and works for the National Park Service at Fire Island, an area devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
Half jokingly, Mitchell suggested that she bring a group of students to New York, and Schacht offered to put the group up, if they could find a way to the East Coast.
Mitchell posited the idea during a few of her classes and word began to spread. Within three weeks, the trip came together. With some funding obtained from Western's Student Government Association to help pay for airfare, Mitchell, eight students and one alum — along with Gunnison County Sheriff’s Deputy Paula Martinez — took the red eye flight out of Denver Sunday, Nov. 18. They arrived in Mastic Beach, N.Y., first thing Monday morning and immediately got to work.
According to Mitchell, the entourage was one of the first relief groups in the area, even though their arrival came three weeks after the hurricane hit Long Island. But not everyone welcomed their assistance, said Western recreation and outdoor education major Kristen Rhea.
“We saw the whole spectrum,” she said. “Some people were full of hope ... and insisted we help other families who needed it more. Some were skeptical and didn’t accept our help.”
“One person wouldn’t even open the door for us,” added Nicole Real, a sociology major.
But according to Ben Clark, a graduate student in Western’s Professional Land and Resource Management program, most people welcomed their help.
“Initially, we were received with some trepidation,” he explained. “There’s contractors around trying to rip people off, there’s looting and crime. But when they saw that we weren’t trying to sell them anything or take them to the cleaners, we were well received.”
“It was pretty shocking to see all the property damage and how destructive saltwater can be. Everything was covered in rust,” Clark added. “It was gross.”
The volunteers went door to door in their assigned neighborhoods, determining people’s needs — from food and water to heat and electricity. They also made sure residents were on the Federal Emergency Management Agency register to receive aid and offered as much manual labor as they could to help residents.
Some homes were spared by the storm’s impact. Others were destroyed.
“It was crazy to see the difference,” said Ginger Chang, an accounting major.
One man had a dock in his front yard that had been carried there by the hurricane’s wind and waves. Another man had completely gutted his flooded house himself.
“We were in working-class, lower-middle-class neighborhoods where people were trying to live in their homes even though they were filled with six feet of water ...,” Mitchell described. “People are fairly resilient, but a lot of folks we came across were at the end of their rope.”
Rhea described one woman who was caring for nine children and an infant. She had taken in 13 stray dogs and cats, and had a broken hip herself, to boot.
On Thanksgiving day, the crew met a woman whose flooded house was filled with wood panelling that needed to be removed. So instead of eating turkey and pie, they had a quick snack at a soup kitchen and went to work.
“We came and did about $10,000 worth of contracting work to tear down her panelling,” said Mitchell. “Her reaction was, ‘Thank you so much, my life is more manageable now.’”
The students were also thankful for the experience, despite the fact that it meant a holiday away from home.
“I wanted to be with my family and they wanted me to be with them, but they were really happy when they found out where we were going,” said Clark. “They were really supportive.”
The Western hurricane-relief crew could not have made the trip without community support, according to participants. SGA donated $1,500 to the trip, and the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department donated $300. Wilderness Pursuits loaned participants sleeping bags and backpacks to take with them, free of charge, and the First Year Experience donated work gloves.
ACE Hardware also donated gloves, along with respirator masks and eye protection, worth about $300. When the group arrived in New York, the Mastic Beach Ambulance Company loaned them a 15-passenger van for the week, which otherwise would have cost around $1,700.
Real said the trip made her feel fortunate.
“Getting to go out there, I’m just thankful for what I have and that I don’t have to start all over again,” she said.
Photos by Ginger Chang