Tuscaloosa Tornado Victims Get Helping Hands from Oglethorpe Students

Pictured: Students observe a devastated home in Tuscaloosa.

My first Oglethorpe Alternative Winter Break was amazing, relationship-building, eye-opening, and reflective. From January 3-8, ten Oglethorpe students and two staff members volunteered to help with disaster relief for damage caused by the April 2011 tornados that swept through Tuscaloosa, Ala. Although part of the city has been cleaned up and rebuilt, there are numerous communities that look like the storm passed through just yesterday.

During our first morning service project, we worked with Compassion Coalition to patch up a home that was previously destroyed by the tornado. We hammered trim to fill in an elderly woman’s bedroom cracks from the wall to the ceiling and covered up a hole in her floor. Hearing Vicki’s story was extremely heartbreaking and devastating as she lost eight people in the tornado, including her husband and her son. This was my most memorable moment of Alternative Winter Break because I saw the true strength that the people of Tuscaloosa possessed through such difficult times. To lose everything precious to you and still have hope for a better tomorrow finally put meaning behind my own mother’s words: “There is hope for the living.” Regardless of what few possessions Vicki had, or where she was living now, she had today and that was enough for her.

Pictured: Jacob Tadych ’14 helps Alicia Morris, an AmeriCorps volunteer at OU, make a side window.

Pictured: Anna Ethridge ’14 paints a new shed.

During that same afternoon, we volunteered with the Volunteer Reception Committee to pick up debris from and around a home that was destroyed by the tornado. Our group genuinely bonded over this experience as we became better acquainted with each other as well as the individual who had once lived in this home. We all put ourselves in the shoes of this woman and recognized how truly thankful we are to simply have a roof over our heads.

For the next three days, we worked with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild a home for a family who was displaced by the tornado. We met the mother, father and two children who would move into this home in less than three weeks, all because of our hard work. We were able to learn new construction skills all while helping a family who both needed and appreciated our efforts.

Pictured: "Our" Habitat for Humanity home

In addition to our daily service projects, throughout the week we participated in various teambuilding activities, reflections and presentations. We held discussions with native Tuscaloosa community members about preparations for the tornado, during the tornado and the rebuilding process. We even had the opportunity to speak with an individual who was part of the civil rights movement in Tuscaloosa. Learning  more about the history of Tuscaloosa first-hand provided us all with insight that could not be read online or even in a book.

Pictured: OUr special handshake with some Tuscaloosa residents.

Volunteering with the nonprofit organizations and participating in the various group activities throughout the week helped us to grow together as a group and as individuals. If I can close on one piece of advice it would be to take advantage of opportunities where your surroundings are completely different; your ideas, passions, and talents can be exercised in such a way that personal growth can occur. Sometimes growth can happen in the most unlikely places.

OU students – if you’re interested in making a difference by participating in Alternative Spring Break (March 18-24, 2012), join us in the Center for Civic Engagement this Friday, January 27, 12-12:30 pm or contact Heather Staniszewski at hstan@oglethorpe.edu. Applications are also available NOW in the CCE or on PetrelNet.