1/25/2013 Chris Karlesky

F&M Students, Alumni Aid Wildfire-Stricken Community in Texas

  • Roberta Machin '15 (left) and Yixu Chen '16 prepare a piece of lumber that will be used in the reconstruction of a home damaged by wildfires in Bastrop County, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Catastrophic Relief Alliance)

Deep in the heart of Texas, it was a sight Franklin & Marshall student Stephanie Lifshutz '13 will never forget. Thousands of acres of Bastrop County had been destroyed by a wildfire, the charred remains of houses and trees serving as reminders of a devastating disaster. Meanwhile, surrounding areas were spared by the wind-driven flames.

"The trees just looked like sharpened sticks of charcoal growing from the ground," Lifshutz said. "Surrounding that, clusters of trees were completely intact. I realized how random the devastation was, and what the residents of Bastrop were experiencing."

Lifshutz and 18 other F&M students traveled to southeast Texas in early January with F&M's Catastrophic Relief Alliance (CRA) to help residents rebuild in the wake of the wildfire, which destroyed almost 1,700 homes in September 2011. The weeklong trip was the CRA's 10th relief excursion to an American community affected by a natural disaster since 2006, and its first to a wildfire-stricken area.

The students joined members of F&M's Gulf Coast Alumni Chapter in Texas, continuing a partnership that began after Hurricane Ike struck near Galveston in 2008. In Bastrop County, the group's tasks included roofing, carpentry, flooring, painting, siding, trim work and the installation of bathroom fixtures at eight sites -- often in dreary weather conditions.

  • Franklin & Marshall students clean up the charred remains of a home in Bastrop County, Texas, during a trip organized by F&M's Catastrophic Relief Alliance in early January. The residence was one of almost 1,700 destroyed in the community by a wildfire in September 2011. (Photo courtesy of Catastrophic Relief Alliance)

"I'm impressed and encouraged that so many F&M students love to participate in these trips," said Andy Gulati, systems librarian, associate librarian and adviser to the CRA. "This was probably our most challenging trip to date because of rain and cold weather, but we still managed to make a positive impact on eight different residences. And we always have such a great experience with our Texas alumni."

A gallery of images highlighting the CRA's trip to Texas is available online.

Lifshutz signed up for the trip after having a memorable experience with the CRA in January 2012, when the group helped an Alabama resident rebuild after a violent tornado the previous spring.

"I knew I had to take advantage of another opportunity to work with the CRA," said Lifshutz, an art major and international studies minor at F&M. "These trips have everything a college student could ask for -- an active volunteering experience, time to spend with friends and a chance to travel around the country. I've studied disaster relief in my classes at F&M, but actually participating on a work site and physically improving my surroundings makes the idea of a liberal arts education so much more meaningful."

F&M student Linh Tran '13, a neuroscience major at the College, is another CRA veteran. The trip to Texas was Tran's fourth with the group.

"Every year has been better than the last," Tran said. "I couldn't think of a better way to spend a week of my winter break than to participate in the CRA trip to Texas."

The CRA launched in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the most costly natural disaster in American history. The group made its first relief trip to Picayune, Miss., in January 2006 to provide physical support during the recovery effort. A gift from F&M Trustee Anthony Kreisel '66 helped make the initial trip possible, with bake sales and other fundraising efforts supporting recent trips.

Members of the CRA are planning a relief trip over F&M's spring break to help victims of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast coast of the U.S. in late October. Students and members of the faculty and professional staff who are interested in participating should contact the CRA.

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