Spring Break. When most people think of this term, they usually think of a tropical island filled with booze, bathing suits, and beach balls; however, for 20 students from West Chester University, Spring Break was something completely different. These 20 students were able to breakdown, build, and help make a difference for this specific community.
While many schools hold Alternative Spring Breaks every year, WCU had not held one since 2003. At that time, some students went down to North Carolina to do a Habitat for Humanity build. The director of the Office of Service Learning and Volunteer Programs, Jodi Roth, as well as two undergraduate students, Fran Cintorrino and Melissa Christie, decided that 10 years had been too long and decided that they wanted to have another Alternative Spring Break. There were tough decisions to be made about where to have the trip, but after researching the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy from October 2012, Christie and Cintorino knew they wanted to pick somewhere a little closer to home. After making some phone calls and finding two agencies to work with, they decided on Staten Island, N.Y. as the destination for the 2013 WCU Alternative Spring Break.
The next step was finding the team Christie and Cintorino would be taking with them. Two graduate students, Caitlin Mahon and Chris Gueno, as well as Jodi Roth would help lead the trip, but the key to a successful trip was the students. On OrgSync, there was a brief application on The Office of Service Learning and Volunteer Programs portal. The word got out quickly and by the first week in March, 16 undergraduate students were chosen. After a few orientation meetings, the team of 21 made their way to Staten Island on March 17. The two and a half hour car ride to Staten Island was a tight squeeze in two university vans, but even that did not diminish the anticipation of getting started. On Monday, the team split into two different groups and worked with two different agencies: Tunnel to Towers Foundation and Guyon Rescue.
Tunnel to Towers Foundation (www.tunnel2towers.org) was founded after 9/11 when a firefighter by the name of Stephen Siller who decided to help during the attacks, despite being off duty. Siller unfortunately died during his efforts, and the foundation was started in his name due to his bravery. Since then, Tunnel to Towers has helped firefighters’ and veterans’ families as well as holding an annual 5K in Siller’s memory. When Hurricane Sandy hit, the foundation quickly drew their attention to Sandy Relief. Guyon Rescue (http://www.guyonrescue.org) is a non-profit organization that started up right after Hurricane Sandy hit; it began as a place for food and water on a Staten Island resident’s front yard and has grown into an organization helping supply residents in need as well working on homes of those affected.
During my week on the trip, I was fortunate enough to work with Guyon Rescue and Tunnel to Towers. When we first arrived, I am ashamed to say I did not believe the damage was even that bad. The homes looked fine from the outside, but when we went into the first house, we immediately saw the homes were anything but fine. Holes in the floor, rotting wood, and overall wetness surrounded us as we spent our first day pulling up ruined floor boards and tearing down damp ceiling panels. The days of the week we spent with Tunnel to Towers we worked in the basement of an elderly woman’s home. Our group felt a special connection to the house we worked on with Tunnel to Towers because of the elderly woman. She explained to us she lost her husband a month before the hurricane hit, and the basement is where she spent the majority of her time with not only him, but the rest of her family.
We got to see the destruction Staten Island faced up close when we were walking around and picking up trash. Homes were completely wiped away, with not much foundation left, memories via photo albums and newspaper cuttings were seen throughout our clean up, and bold red signs that read “UNSAFE AREA” were on almost every third house. Complete porches were slanted downward, and a basement was still completely filled with water. The whole area looked like it was hit by a hurricane the day before, not months ago; houses were condemned and barren and residents were seen sparingly. While the physicality of doing small construction work for a few days (work that some of us had never done) had taken its toll on us, it was nothing compared to the emotion we felt upon seeing this wreckage.
On March 23 we headed back to West Chester, with the memories of what we had done that week still on our minds. The images of the destruction still radiant in our heads, but also the images of happiness shown by the people we helped. If there is one thing we all learned from that week, it is that there is always service to be done and there are always people who are thankful.
If you have any questions/comments, contact the author, Joseph Deegan. If you would like to learn more about how you can get involved with service on campus, contact Jodi Roth at JRoth@wcupa.edu.
Joseph Deegan is a third year student majoring in English education. He can be reached at JD739130@wcupa.edu.