When fall break came to Western Carolina University, some students headed home or took off for fun. Some from WCU’s Emergency and Disaster Management Club went to a storm-ravaged town in Texas and rolled up their sleeves.
Vidor, a community of some 12,000 people in the southeast region of Texas, was hit hard by Tropical Storm Imelda in September. Resulting floodwaters damaged or destroyed numerous homes and the surrounding county was declared a federal disaster area. The town was still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Harvey that occurred in September 2017.
“It was a five-day trip for 10 of us to do something more than a food drive, as great as those projects are,” said Daniel Tizon, a junior and director of WCU’s Emergency Management Student Association. “We did debris removal, working alongside homeowners who’d lost everything, to maybe lend them some emotional support. That really had an impact on us, as EDM students, and is the sort of experience you have got to live through to gain. We also got to provide assistance in a recovery area through NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like Samaritan's Purse, which was another needed experience. We all came away learning so much.”
Zoulaiha Daouda, a WCU international student from Cameroon majoring in electrical engineering and data science, wanted to spend her first fall break in the U.S. as a volunteer with other students.
“As we drove through the town for the first time, I was saddened at the sight of piles of damaged furniture sitting in front of almost every house,” Daouda said. “The work we did was not like anything I had ever done before. My muscles were sore at the end of each day, yet I was excited for the next day.
“I was humbled to hear the stories of the homeowners and felt honored to be helping them. The experience was special for me because, as a Muslim, I got to spend some time in a church,” she said. “I was very warmly welcomed by the Samaritan’s Purse community, and I realized how much of an impact we can make when we unite for a cause bigger than our differences. Our willingness to offer our time and help to people who were in need was what brought us together, and I think the difference in our faiths only added beauty to our work.”
The faculty adviser for the club, Thomas C. Johnson, WCU associate professor of emergency and disaster management, was equally pleased with the results. “The students from the club took the initiative to help a community that has been victimized by a disaster,” he said. “They planned the trip, found a public service organization with which to partner, and gave of their time to travel to Texas to help the victims.”
The trend of alternative spring, fall and holiday breaks for community service provides university students an opportunity to volunteer, help others and experience real-world challenges and, in turn, witness firsthand solutions and innovations, said Lane Perry, executive director of WCU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. The dual benefits of personal involvement shapes and informs the individual.
“This particular alternative break experience to Texas demonstrates the highest level of community engagement we want to see in our students,” Perry said. “The introductory level of service requires our center to organize opportunities for our students. The next level requires that our center organizes experiences with our students, and the final and highest level, as exemplified here, expects the service experiences to be organized and developed by our students. It is pretty remarkable to witness and help shape the growth of these leaders in our community.”
The center launched its Alternative Break Program, with an initial mission to hurricane-ravaged Pensacola, Florida, during spring break 2005. In addition to disaster relief, projects have focused on environmental and poverty-related issues, disadvantaged youth assistance, medical supply delivery and more.
“One of the stories that really had an impact on me was a lady who had just finished rebuilding her home destroyed by Hurricane Harvey,” said Danielle Kuykendall, a WCU freshman majoring in emergency and disaster management. “When we arrived on site, we could tell that her home had meant a lot to her. And she had to watch it be destroyed by the flooding again, for the second time in two years.
“This might sound cliche, but serving these people was truly an amazing and impactful experience for me and seeing how grateful they were for our help made the trip worth it,” Kuykendall said. “This trip made me realize that I’m going into the right major, and that I want to help impact those affected by disasters.”
For more information, contact the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning at 828-227-7184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.