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Students spend holiday helping with disaster relief

BOONE—Nine students from Appalachian State University traded Thanksgiving with their families for the opportunity to clean up damage from Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, N.Y.

View larger imageThe student group from Appalachian that helped clean up a Queens, N.Y., neighborhood over Thanksgiving break included, from left standing, Jaimie McGirt, Cameron Muir, Andrew Hawley, Frank Thomas, Tiffany Schisler and Paige Arneth. Front row from left are pictured Ava Whitehead, Graham Neville and Sierra Thompson.View larger imageThe Appalachian student team works in one of five homes they helped clean out after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast Oct. 29.View larger imageDebris piles outside people’s homes during clean-up efforts in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., over Thanksgiving.View larger imageAppalachian students speak with a homeowner, left, in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. They helped assess the home’s damage as well as the homeowner’s need for volunteer help in cleaning it out.

The students spent the four-day weekend working with World Cares Center, a New York-based nonprofit organization working to empower communities through disaster response and training.

They helped canvas homes Thanksgiving Day, going door to door to conduct damage assessments with the owners, and entered their needs into a database. On Friday and Saturday, the students were dispatched to five of those homes, some of which had water damage six feet high, to help remove debris and gut the interiors.

The Thanksgiving Break service experience was part of the university’s Alternative Break Experience programs, typically planned for fall and spring breaks and the winter break between semesters. Andrew Hawley of Outdoor Programs led the trip.

Regarding his choice to spend Thanksgiving helping others, sophomore Cameron Muir said, “I can think of no better way to give thanks for the blessings in my life than to give my time to be a blessing in someone else’s.”

A political science major, Muir plans to go into emergency preparedness and disaster relief after graduate school. “My real passion is helping people who really, really need it,” he said. “When disasters strike, sometimes the best thing for a survivor is to know that he or she is not alone, and that there are people out there who want to help.”

Senior Jaimie McGirt said she felt obligated to help, after having caught the last flight from New York back to North Carolina before Hurricane Sandy made landfall Oct. 29. The sustainable development major had been in Manhattan attending a conference.

“Over two days, over 35 homes were served by World Cares volunteer crews, five of which were served by Appalachian volunteers. I was proud to send out Andrew as a team leader on Saturday with his work crew of students. I unfortunately did not get to meet the residents whose homes I dispatched volunteers to, but I am so glad I could fulfill a different kind of need. It certainly was one of the most humbling volunteer experiences I have had,” McGirt said. World Cares assigned her to work as a logistics coordinator.

“In one of the last houses we helped muck out, the grandmother made us hot chocolate over her wood-burning stove, and then when we were ready to take down the walls, she grabbed a hammer and helped us rip down the sheetrock as tears fell down her cheeks,” Hawley said. “It’s moments like that that make you realize how much these people have lost, a lifetime of memories, and how powerful it is for them to take that first step to re-building their life.”

Each year, Appalachian students provide more than 100,000 hours of service to the local and global community, according to ACT (Appalachian and the Community Together), the university’s clearinghouse for volunteer service.

“I truly believe that our generation has an incredible potential, perhaps the greatest potential of any generation before us,” Muir said in regard to helping others. “Service opportunities like this trip allow college students the ability to break out of their tiny, egotistic world and do something good for someone else. Whether it is a trip like this one, or a day at the local homeless shelter, I know that actively doing something for someone else can help us open our eyes in a way that we could never do alone.”

The Thanksgiving break service program was made possible with help from Appalachian’s Outdoor Programs, which provided sleeping bags and sleeping pads for the students so they could sleep on the floor of a neighborhood church. Safety glasses were provided by Balfour Beatty construction company, which is currently involved in major construction projects on campus. Gloves and masks were provided by Dave Robertson, director of student programs at Appalachian.