Students in a May service-based leadership course sheetrocked, painted and labored in other ways to transform houses damaged by Hurricane Sandy back into homes, but the difference that meant the most to them was found in the homeowners themselves.
“In the beginning their frustration was clear, but by the end of our time with them they seemed to have changed, transformed or at least smiled,” said Aubrey Drake, a sophomore from Hickory majoring in interior design. “They were extremely thankful and that touched my heart. I love being able to make a difference. Although I am just one person, I know that I can do big things … and (that) being able to even make a small difference could impact someone for life.”
Drake was one of 10 students in the two-and-a-half-week minimester course “Leadership in Civil Society” taught by Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning, and structured around the social change model of leadership. The course’s readings, discussion topics, service activities and assignments were designed to foster leadership education, training and development, and to help students better understand what it takes – the processes and systems – to develop community actions through civic engagement practices.
“These experiences, both hands-on and educative, helped to foster active citizenship through student-centered outreach projects focusing on community engagement and added to the discussions by allowing students opportunities to explore a range of points of views – government, scholars, and victims – on various issues related to leadership in disaster response and recovery,” said Perry.
Students and faculty traveled to Staten Island in New York City, where recovery work continues after Hurricane Sandy, a storm that caused major damage to businesses and more than 37,000 primary residences and about 9,300 rental units, according to information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
By day, the students worked with the New York Says Thank You Foundation to install insulation, subflooring and doors; sheetrock ceilings and walls; grout bathrooms; paint; and to clear debris and perform other tasks in the homes of three first responders.
By evening, they met for class and stayed in accommodations courtesy of the Friends of Firefighters organization. They drew from each day’s experiences to better grasp the concepts they were studying, discussing such topics as the relationship between leadership ideas and civil structures and the processes that support – or sometimes obstruct – leadership and innovation.
While in New York, the students completed a collective 400 hours of service, and Tim Callahan, the construction coordinator from the New York Says Thank You Foundation, said the WCU team was spectacular. Callahan said he particularly was impressed with their phenomenal attitude to want to help other people.
“One of the homeowners and I were surveying the work we had accomplished for the day and he said, ‘Thanks to them I really feel like I am getting my home back,’” he said.
Jessica Nipper, a senior from Mebane majoring in biology with a minor in leadership, said she became emotional at first when she realized how much more severely the hurricane had affected the people of New York than she had realized. Homeowners had spent thousands of dollars and, in some cases, drained their savings trying to repair their homes. Students heard about the obstacles they had faced seeking assistance and about them feeling forgotten.
“This storm not only affected their homes, but also affected their lives,” said Nipper.
Matthew Chevalier, a junior from Wake Forest majoring in political science with minors in economics and international affairs, said one homeowner “had the body language of a man who’s had so much stress bearing down on his shoulders and finally had a big part of that weight lifted off.”
“Seeing their faces along with hearing their stories while you basically help rebuild their lives is about the most rewarding experience I have ever been involved in,” said Chevalier.
For Aaron Marshall, a senior from Gastonia majoring in athletic training and the student assistant for the course, helping first responders who have dedicated themselves to serving others was a special honor. He also was especially moved to hear of the spontaneous generous hospitality – of the words of support and offers of food – extended by community members as they learned what the WCU students were doing.
Nipper said their experiences and academic activities helped her identify that movements and community-centered transformation can start small with one individual and grow to a larger community – a campus, region, state or country.
“A group of leaders and an act of volunteerism and kindness can go a long way,” she said.
The hardest part of the course, the students said, was leaving New York knowing there were more people who needed help.
When Chevalier returned home, he started a Facebook group intended to build interest in returning to New York in September to help more people.
For Marshall, whose trip with the class was his second to serve victims of Hurricane Sandy, the return home was brief as he then left to assist with disaster recovery after the tornadoes in Oklahoma.
“Service seems to stack upon itself and increase exponentially,” said Marshall. “One service project or opportunity leads to another, and each individual experience gives us a greater experience to build off of for the next chance or the next item of need or opportunity.”
The experience did not just inspire the WCU students to continue serving; the students inspired those they served.
“Having people come out and help like that makes me want, when I get settled, to do volunteer work myself,” said Joe Loughran, a homeowner the students helped who was displaced for several months after the storm.
Perry said he was proud to be part of the group from WCU whose small acts helped spark new hope within communities.
“Ten WCU students and faculty arriving on site with the New York Says Thank You Foundation helped illuminate the best of humanity – illuminated the best in all of us,” said Perry.