Student assists with hurricane relief over holiday break

Aaron Marshall sits on what is left of a motorcycle that was pulled from the debris left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Aaron Marshall sits on what is left of a motorcycle that was pulled from the debris left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Western Carolina junior Aaron D. Marshall spent six days of his winter break helping “muck out” houses in the Rockaways in New York City damaged by Hurricane Sandy in late October.

“The work was extremely physical, as well as painstakingly emotional,” said Marshall, who is from Gastonia and is majoring in athletic training. “It also was unbelievably rewarding, and I know I’m a changed person for it.”

Marshall served as a team leader with New York Cares, an organization that operates volunteer programs for 1,300 nonprofits, city agencies and public schools.

Each day, he and his team of volunteers received a work order for a damaged house and then collected personal protective equipment, including respirators, gloves, suits, helmets and tools such as sledgehammers and pry bars. After confirming their assigned house was safe to enter, they removed debris, pulled up flooring, demolished mold-ridden drywall, pulled down ceilings and removed appliances and bathroom fixtures, which sometimes required groups of three or four people to lift.

“Many a time we would find personal effects of the homeowner, such as photos or little trinkets from the home, and we would stop all of our work and return it to the homeowner,” said Marshall. “They would break down, crying and sometimes embracing us for finding a little shred of what was theirs before the water came.”

Lawrence Ksiez, a team leader with New York Cares, said the relief effort benefited from Marshall’s organization, efficiency and professionalism. “I’ve never seen a person make friends as easily as he does, and his communication skills are extraordinary,” Ksiez said.

Marshall said he was inspired to volunteer by interacting with college students who wanted to help in the wake of disasters and his personal experience with activities coordinated through WCU’s Center for Service Learning. He has participated in alternative break trips in which students travel to another city and participate in service activities, the first of which took him to Lexington, Ky., as a freshman.

“That’s where I realized the change that I could bring just to one individual’s life by choosing to take the opportunity to help them,” said Marshall.

Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning, said part of the center’s mission is to help students such as Marshall become more aware of how they are a part of the world beyond campus and how their actions can transform not only their community, but also, through reflection, themselves.

“Aaron sees an opportunity to make a difference and instead of silencing that voice inside of him, he heeds it with all his heart,” said Perry. “While students like Aaron are rare, I have found WCU to be a place where students like Aaron flock.”

Marshall said he plans to return to New York again in May and is encouraging his WCU classmates to join him in supporting the victims of Hurricane Sandy. He urged students to do what they can, whether simply raising awareness of the victims’ needs on Facebook or hosting a fundraising event such as a bake sale.

“I know the good that come from helping them, and they need help right now,” said Marshall. “It’s been days since the hurricane, but it will take years to clean up all that has been destroyed in that area.”