By Jay Laurens, Coordinator of Outreach Programs
(Lilly Center for Vocation and Values)
From April 25-28 of this year, a total of 362 tornadoes ripped through the southern United States, killing at least 350 people. Hardest hit was the state of Alabama, where a 1.5-mile wide tornado left a path of destruction almost 80 miles long and resulted in at least 65 deaths and the destruction or major damage of an estimated 5,000 homes.
Recently, a group of students and staff from Catawba College reached out to help those affected by this disaster. On May 16th, the 15-member team departed on a weeklong mission trip to assist with clean up and recovery efforts in the Tuscaloosa and Pleasant Grove communities of Alabama. The trip was coordinated by Volunteer Catawba, an outreach program of the Lilly Center for Vocation and Values. While in Alabama, the team assisted families by removing debris, clearing downed trees, and distributing much needed food, water and supplies. Though the primary purpose of the effort was to provide aid to those devastated by the tornadoes, the impact on each member of the Catawba team was undeniable.
Kendra Joyner, President of the Student Government Association and a member of the graduating class of 2011, shared, "Part of the reason I went on this trip was simply to be with my friends and hold onto my Catawba experience a little longer. The first day in Alabama, all of that changed. As we drove over the hill into Tuscaloosa, it was like having the wind sucked out of me - such a feeling of devastation. Still, amidst all of the pain and destruction you had people helping one another, lending a hand, reassessing what is truly important in life, affirming love, family and community. I was changed by this trip, and I know others were as well. The experiences I had will stay with me for the rest of my life."
Joyner was one of four members of the Catawba team who had graduated only two days prior to leaving for Alabama. Anna Dellapenta, also a 2011 graduate and a member of the Catawba basketball team, was similarly moved. She had this to say about her experience: "Seeing piles of debris where houses once stood was overwhelming. The most difficult part for me was filtering through the debris to find precious family belongings like family photos. These told the story of the families affected by the disaster. I couldn't help but think how easily the same thing could have happened to me or my family. I wish I could have stayed in Alabama until every scrap of debris and tree branch were picked up."
Having just completed her four years at Catawba with a dual degree in Spanish
, Susan Fisher
had the unexpected opportunity to put her college education to work helping others while in Alabama. As the Catawba team was taking a lunch break at a temporary relief tent in Tuscaloosa, several Hispanic families arrived seeking food, clothing, and other supplies. A local volunteer was attempting to explain that such items were no longer available at that particular site, while also trying to redirect them to a school where they could get the help they needed. The volunteer, however, spoke no Spanish and none of the family members spoke English. Members of the Catawba group alerted Fisher, who quickly jumped in to provide translation services. This practical and timely application of her Catawba College experience and education brought hope to people in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Nastya Barkova had only a few days between graduation from Catawba and beginning her new job as an Admissions Counselor for the college. With her life in a state of flux and so many decisions to make about her future, she was initially hesitant to go on the mission trip. "Graduating from college and starting a career can be terrifying. I felt that I was still searching for my sense of direction and purpose, but I've often heard that the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. That's why I went to Alabama. Helping people who had lost their homes and loved ones actually allowed me some time to focus on others rather than myself. Interestingly, in doing so, I was able to make a difference - not only in the lives of those I helped - but also my own," said Barkova.
As a Student Coordinator with Volunteer Catawba, Jessica Gaskill
had previously helped lead an effort on the Catawba campus to raise money for victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. She feels that the mission trip offered her an opportunity to do something more tangible to help those in need. Gaskill stated, "When I first saw news footage about the devastation in Alabama, I felt a strong need to do something more than just donate money. This trip provided me the chance to do that. I especially enjoyed meeting victims of the tornado. Sonya, who lived – along with her son, Tyler - in one of the houses where we worked for three days, opened up to us and shared her thoughts and feelings about the day the tornado destroyed her community. I'm sure this was difficult for her, but she was so appreciative for the help that we were providing her family and her neighbors!"
Donna Steele felt equally compelled to reach out to others in a meaningful way. As soon as she heard about the trip, Steele reports that she went straight to her mother and stated, "I have to go on this trip!" She describes it as more than simple desire, but absolute determination to be part of the experience.
Through involvement in his youth group at First United Church of Christ in Salisbury, Drew Laurens had been on several previous mission trips, but none so soon after a disaster. "This trip really was different. Though people were experiencing utter devastation, there was an amazing sense of hope. Working to literally and figuratively help people pick up the pieces of their lives touched me. My only dissatisfaction came from the fact that there were limitations to how much our crew could do in just one week. There is so much more work to be done in Alabama."
Anna Christopher had also been on several previous mission trips with her church. After talking it over, both she and her roommate – Savannah Goodnight -decided to sign on. Goodnight stated, "Going to Alabama was a great experience for us. It was touching to see so many volunteers from all over our nation coming together to help people in need. I also enjoyed getting to know everyone so well and becoming more of a team – actually even closer than a team – more like family."
Adam Ridenhour and Ben Ijames, both Catawba College day students, agreed that getting to know other team members was a highlight of the trip and that they intend to sign up for future Lilly Center sponsored outreach programs. Ridenhour, who is currently working as a Lilly Center intern assigned to the Chaplain's office at Rowan Regional Medical Center stated, "I'm so glad I had this opportunity to be a part of providing aid to those devastated by the tornadoes. Our group bonded as we worked, and together we made a difference in many lives in the Tuscaloosa area. I look forward to other opportunities like this."
Ijames echoed Ridenhour's sentiments and added, "When we got to Tuscaloosa, I was shocked. I never imagined that it would be so bad. I had so many thoughts running through my head. I could not imagine losing everything within a matter of minutes. As I was helping victims of this disaster, I myself grew as a person. I have a greater appreciation for life and realize that the same thing could easily happen here. I'm really glad I had the opportunity to be part of this team."
For several participants, the trip served as the catalyst for additional action. Upon returning home, Bethany Wall displayed pictures she had taken on the trip on posters announcing a community yard sale that she organized. All proceeds from the yard sale were used to provide assistance to the victims of the Alabama tornados. Wall, who was joined on the trip by her good friend Kayla Flinchum, described the trip as "one of the best weeks of my life."
Jacob Hill began a summer research internship in Chemistry at the University of Southern Mississippi, just days after the Alabama trip. Shortly after arriving in Hattiesburg, Jacob recruited a team of his fellow research students to spend a weekend assisting with the continuing relief effort in Tuscaloosa.
During portions of the week, members of the Catawba team could be found wearing t-shirts with the following motto on the front: "Catawba Cares." Under that were the words, "One campus. One community. One world." Jay Laurens, Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Lilly Center, stated that the students who went on the trip "truly took that motto to heart by reaching outside themselves to help others in a time of need."
Laurens cites a specific example as evidence of the students' commitment. "As we were traveling back to North Carolina, we received word of the terrible devastation in Joplin, Missouri caused by yet another tornado. More than one student on our team asked if we could simply drive straight to Missouri rather than return home. That speaks volumes about our students and their commitment to service. It was truly a joy to work alongside them. We can all be proud of the way they represented Catawba College and themselves."
Each participant on the Alabama mission trip paid a portion of the group's expenses for food and fuel. Support was also provided by the Lilly Endowment, Gay's Chapel United Methodist Church, and individual donors. Bottled water, diapers, socks, and toys for distribution to those in need were provided by Wal-Mart of Salisbury. Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Alabama graciously allowed the team to sleep in their church building all week. Members of the church provided facilities for team members in need of a hot shower each day. Dr. Ken Clapp, the college's chaplain and senior vice president, stressed that "without the generous support of these groups and individuals, the trip would not have been possible."
List of Participants (in alphabetical order):
- Nastya Barkova
- Anna Christopher
- Anna Dellapenta
- Susan Fisher
- Kayla Flinchum
- Jessica Gaskill
- Savannah Goodnight
- Jacob Hill
- Ben Ijames
- Kendra Joyner
- Drew Laurens
- Jay Laurens
- Adam Ridenhour
- Donna Steele
- Bethany Wall
PHOTOS: Alabama Tornado Relief Trip
Catawba Group Travels to Alabama to Assist with Recovery Efforts