Joe Cowan '14 traveled to Greensboro, Ala., a year ago during his winter break to help rebuild an area devastated by a tornado.
This year, he dedicated his efforts closer to home, directing a Franklin & Marshall College Catastrophic Relief Alliance (CRA) trip to his native Staten Island, N.Y., where flooding and wind damage from Hurricane Sandy in October left many communities to start over.
"After Hurricane Sandy, I talked with (CRA adviser) Andy Gulati about going to the Jersey Shore to help out," Cowan recalled during a recent interview back on campus. "But my mom started a group on Staten Island to help families affected by the storm, so I suggested we take advantage of that connection."
Cowan worked with his mother, Chrissy Cowan, and Andrew Gulati, a systems librarian, to organize a trip to New York during the first few days of F&M's spring break. And from March 9-12, a group of 20 students and staff spent their vacation sorting and distributing furniture, dismantling flooring, installing drywall and spackling walls in houses throughout Staten Island. They worked with Back to Basics, Chrissy Cowan's organization, as well as the Staten-Island based Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which is rebuilding homes in the area.
Kelsey Kreyche '15, a biology major from Princeton, N.J., who traveled with CRA to Texas in January to rebuild homes destroyed by fire, was surprised how much more work still needs to be done to restore Staten Island.
"Part of the reason the flooding was so extensive is that Staten Island is so flat," she said. "There were small lakes of water that were just sitting there. There were open areas next to a parking lot with heaps of old mattresses people had to get out of their houses."
It was rewarding to feel like the group was making a difference, she said.
"You get to do things that you can see are tangibly improving the situation," she said. "It's also is a lot of fun. You get to know people from F&M outside of the academic setting. It becomes like a family because we are doing work together and you get to know the locals who live in the area where you're working. It was a great experience and one that everyone should have."
In New York, the alliance worked from morning until the late afternoon, then took in some sights to learn more about the community they were helping. They visited Cowan's favorite ice cream shop and went to New York City "the Staten Island way" -- via the ferry. They visited Chinatown and Little Italy. And they took in a performance by a theater group that was staying at their same home base, the New Dorp Moravian Church, where they slept on air mattresses, purchased through funds donated by F&M's Klehr Center for Jewish Life.
Although Cowan said each service trip "changes your outlook," working in his hometown felt different than traveling to a distant place to assist in a relief effort. His family lost electricity, phone and cable service for a month after the storm, but that paled to the devastation in nearby communities.
"The damage was sporadic," he said. "A lot of areas close to the shore were under 12 feet of water. A friend from the New Dorp area had to have his house gutted, and they had to get new cars. It was definitely more personal working there than working in a place where I could think, 'This wouldn't happen back home.' You don't think of the East Coast as being hit as badly as it was. I never thought it would happen in Staten Island. It's surreal."
Josie Portillo '15 who also was on the Texas trip in January, said she was drawn to the Staten Island trip in part because it was closer to her home in Inwood, N.Y.
"I wanted to help out," Portillo said. "My family did not receive much damage from Hurricane Sandy, but it really affected Brooklyn, Queens and Lower Manhattan. I saw on the news pictures of people stranded on Staten Island."
Since the CRA formed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the group has completed 11 trips and six relief efforts, traveling to areas such as Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama, Gulati said. The group has also done volunteer work in Lancaster. Most students pay a modest participation fee, and their travels are supported by fundraising, College organizations and additional outside donations.
The Staten Island trip was more condensed than most trips and it came just two months after many in the group returned from the winter relief trip to Texas, Gulati said.
"I was really impressed to have so many students who were really eager to help," Gulati siad. "It's amazing what we were able to accomplish in just three days. What struck me was watching students who have never tried something before, like drywalling, jump in and learn how to do it, and they also immersed themselves in the local culture of this community. It was a very communal experience."