By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News
Fred Miller was looking for a service project for his freshmen students at Iowa Wesleyan University when he reached out to a representative of United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) about volunteering in Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey.
With Houston needing more seasoned disaster responders, Katie Newman, head of UMCOR for Iowa, instead directed the IW students in Miller?s Service Learning class to Orange County, Ark. It was here where torrential rains hit in early May, flooding areas with up to 12 feet of water and killing 17 people. With the most severe and immediate damage already being addressed, IW students, some of whom had no previous experience with construction, worked on two homes repairing flood damage from Oct. 15 through 18.
?(The students) went from never using a power drill to building a handicap ramp, and they took right to it,? said Ryan Heffernan, who?s working at IW this year as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer.
Service Learning is a class that incorporates volunteering into the curriculum to teach students why service matters and how it fits into the ethos of a community, Miller said. He gives students up to 10 project options and lets them choose what they are most interested in and what works with their schedule to meet the required service learning hours.
Miller took 12 students who chose this project for Service Learning on a four-day trip to Arkansas, traveling in a charter bus donated by Burlington Trailways. Miller said that without the blessing of free bus transportation, the trip would have been a challenge. Having the charter bus made the two-day drive there and back a lot more comfortable and accommodating. In between working, the team stayed at a Methodist Church campground run by a couple who made them meals and took really good care of them, Miller said.
?I hope we didn?t spoil our students,? he joked about the transportation.
The first job site was a house that was built raised 10 feet from the ground to protect it from flooding; however, it was no match for the floods of last spring. Two feet of water managed to make its way inside. The students worked to remove the paneling off the walls, gut the drywall, take down the cabinets and trash the insulation.
?When we left, you could see from bedroom to bedroom to kitchen to bathroom. We took it all out,? Miller said. ?That?s kind of the scope of the work we did.?
?We had great people who helped us,? freshman IW student Lhakpa Dolma Lama said. Lama moved to the U.S. from Nepal at the beginning of the semester. Although she had engaged in volunteer work back in Nepal, Lama said that she wanted to take the opportunity in the U.S. to see another state and to ?provide a service for those who are having any suffering.?
Lama said that the students were able to meet the owner of the first home they worked on. She said that the woman whose house had been destroyed by floodwater really shared her life with the students while they were there. Lama?s biggest take-away from talking with the owner is how she managed to overcome the loss of her belongings in the flood.
?I really had an overwhelming experience because though I have been exposed to these kind of situations, those ladies ? lost everything (in their homes),? Lama said. ?Seeing them still strong made me more inspired. We were not the ones who were the victims, they were, but we were more sad than them to see their situation. That inspired us to help more in the future.?
IW student Hiroaki Tanabe, from Japan, had a similar experience. Tanabe saw the opportunity to choose the Arkansas trip as part of his service learning hours and knew he had to step up.
?I wanted to help people who need help,? Tanabe said in an email. ?As you probably know, we (in Japan) have had several earthquakes, but I cannot help people (there) who had experienced it. I thought that if I have any chance to help people, I?ll join in.?
For IW student Trent Paschal, the two days of work put him in a position to be a leader. Although he shied away from using that word himself, he said that as the work progressed, he felt the other students look to him for direction, and he rose to the occasion.
Paschal said the biggest challenge was deciding what to tear out of the house because of damage and what to try to salvage.
?We had to discipline ourselves,? Paschal said. ?It was a challenge for us because we just wanted to pull stuff apart and get it done. I definitely do feel inspired that I can use my hands to help out more than do damage with.?
The group worked with local volunteers who were already on the job site, most of whom are retired from their day jobs and appreciated the ?young, strong backs that can bend, lift and hold,? Miller said.
On the second job site, Miller said they worked with David Johnson, who had already been doing work by himself for two or three weeks.
?He was very relieved we were there,? Heffernan said.
Miller observed that although the students started outside their comfort zone, they grew comfortable very quickly, tackling the tasks at hand and learning how to work as a team. The people already on-site taught them how to use power tools and with that, their productivity multiplied exponentially, he said.
?I saw a lot of tears from the homeowners,? Miller said. ?Oh, I think I shed a few myself,? he added.
The trip to Arkansas was the first trip taken by freshmen Service Learning students in several years. IW students find niches within the community to complete their service learning hours, such as helping with the Thrashers House of Terror or working with Healthy Henry County Communities on the Healthy Halloween Walk. Students this year also participated in Adopt A Highway, collecting trash from Highway 34 and traveling to a Burlington landfill.
?This only works with community partners,? Miller said. ?Say what you will about teenagers in the 21st Century, these young people have done a very good job.
?There?s a contribution you can?t measure,? Miller continued, referring to the work students did in Orange County, Ark. ?It?s that nebulous thing that just your presence, your attitude, your demeanor, all of that factors in.?