During the last week of winter break, 35 Elizabethtown College students and faculty members went to Smithville, Miss. to help to rebuild what a tornado destroyed.
April 27, 2011 an EF5 (Enhanced Fujita scale 5) tornado, which is the highest level for tornado damage, touched down in Mississippi. According to USA Today, this is the first EF5 tornado to strike Mississippi since 1966; at nearly three miles tall and a half-mile wide, the tornado included winds reaching up to 205 miles per hour.
Although the tornado only touched down for 10 seconds, the damage to Smithville was extensive. For this reason, Etown’s Civic Engagement Office organized a trip to help rebuild the town. They partnered with Lend A Hand, a volunteer organization that works toward disaster relief.
Etown students, staff and Lend A Hand volunteers worked together to help rebuild the community. Their tasks included putting up drywall, moving trash, tearing down a trailer that was too damaged to be recovered and building a ramp for a house to provide accessibility for handicapped people.
Junior Sarah Creme helped work on the trailer that was too damaged to recover. A tree that took out the back of the trailer still remained on top of it. Creme said they worked to salvage anything they could, making big piles of scrap metal. Then they took down all the walls and all the flooring. She discussed how the homeowner at first was very guarded and didn’t want any help. By the end of the project, Creme said the homeowner’s attitude changed greatly: “He began smiling a lot and realized the group was there to help.”
Senior Heather Slifko, who has gone on similar trips for the past four years, also talked about the homeowner she worked for, Cheryl. She described how Cheryl works for mostly nonprofit organizations. Cheryl’s daughter, who was pregnant with twins, was killed by a drunk driver. After that, Cheryl started Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Mississippi. She also started Mourning After, a program for victims of abuse and violence. Sophomore Emily Gockley, who also helped put up drywall in Cheryl’s house, said, “It was nice to help someone who was helping others.”
Along with helping to repair the town, the group also did something else — they brought hope. Since the town is so small, there was no mistaking who the volunteers were and what they were there to do. Members of the town exhibited their gratitude because there was only so much they could do within their local community. The volunteers brought a new light of hope to those who thought they had been forgotten.
However, this trip touched more than just the hearts of the local Smithville residents. This trip was an experience the volunteers will always remember. Creme discussed how eye-opening it was for her. The idea that you can lose everything you have within a mere 10 seconds can really make you thankful for what you do have. “It opens your eyes and makes you aware of the larger picture,” Creme said. She also talked about how this was a great excuse to travel. Not to mention the friendships and bonds one forms with all the other volunteers. She used the analogy of having gone to war with them: “Nobody will ever understand the experiences you had together and the things you saw.”
The group arrived in Mississippi on Jan. 8, which is Elvis Presley’s birthday. The group was staying at a church in Tupelo, one town over from Smithville. Tupelo was Presley’s birthplace. Students took advantage of this fun coincidence and visited the location of Presley’s birth and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.
Etown students were also given the privilege to visit city hall, which, because of tornado damage, was reduced to a trailer located beside the police station. There, they met the mayor and saw the city’s plan for how to rebuild and organize their town.
The volunteer group was also featured on the local news. A reporter came for a day to interview some of the volunteers and emphasized the great work they were doing. The reporter was touched that all these volunteers gave up some of their winter break and paid money to do work. Later that evening he came back to visit them, bringing homemade cinnamon rolls.
Gockley said her favorite part of the trip was when the homeowner of one of the houses had a friend who brought his guitar and speaker system outside to play music for them all day. Everyone could hear the music and could dance while they worked.
At the end of the week the crew simulated the well-known scene from “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in which they blocked the view of the house with a big bus and yelled out “Move that bus!” to reveal the finished product.
“I went on [the service trip] my freshman year and if I had to look back that’s one of, if not the best, experience that I’ve had while at Etown,” Slifko said.