College Students Respond to Tuscaloosa’s Needs

Categories : Publications
College of Coastal Georgia's Mariners' Log
(Brunswick, GA)
July 2012, p.6

Copyright 2012 Mariners' Log. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

College Students Respond to Tuscaloosa’s Needs

by: Joshua J. Meunier

On April 21, 2011, the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was struck by an EF4 tornado that destroyed houses, vehicles, and businesses; dozens of people lost their lives. According to the mayor of Tuscaloosa, more than 5,000 residences were affected by the storm. About 2,500 homes were damaged, and another 1,612 were considered severely damaged; 1,257 homes were completely destroyed or no longer standing.

More than a year later, the need for major repairs still exists. Homes need rebuilding, people are still waiting for permits to rebuild, families are waiting to move into new homes, debris still litters many yards, and so on.

Among the many volunteers still working every weekend to help the city recover are hundreds of college students. For example, on the one-year anniversary of the tornado, over 1,200 students, faculty, and alumni from the University of Alabama volunteered around 4,800 hours of service to help rebuild their community.

The city still worries because tornados can touch down any day, so volunteers are doing what they can to help build houses that will better withstand storm damage, and city personnel are increasing efforts to track how and when tornados will hit and to keep residents informed.

On May 8, 2012, I joined eight other students—Drake Aldredge, Mercedes Bartkovich, Patrick Jackson, Justin Schreiner, Brandon Massaro, Kari Butler, Chynna Seymour, and John Dixon—from both the College of Coastal Georgia and the University of Georgia for the eight-hour drive to Tuscaloosa. We then spent a week helping several Tuscaloosa families to rebuild their lives.

The first day that we started working, May 9, we met with Jon Lambert, Student Involvement Coordinator of the Tuscaloosa Area Volunteer Reception Center, who introduced us to staff members of the organization. We met with McCarlie Thomas, Safety and Logistics Coordinator, who briefed us about safety regulations before we headed out to our first assignment. We had to make sure that we had the proper shoes, tools, clothes, and knowledge for the work we’d be doing.

At our first site, we cut fallen trees into 8-foot pieces so that the debris could be stacked at the curb for pickup by road crews. Later that day, our group split in two. Three of us went to a house where we painted one of the bedrooms a dark orange color. The family was very appreciative and hopes that we will return to help out in the future.

The other six members of our group helped another family, the Jenkinses, move furniture into their new home. Mercedes had met the family and worked on their home on an earlier trip to Tuscaloosa. After my group finished painting, we joined them to move furniture and small electronics into the house. Some of us kept the children occupied while the others set up the two children’s bunk bed and the mother and father’s bed.

Mrs. Jenkins expressed her deep gratitude by thanking God for sending us to help her get moved in and set up. Once we were finished, we stood together with the family and prayed for the protection and blessing of God on the family.

As we were leaving the Jenkins home, Patrick reflected on the progress that had been made in the past year. He had gone to Tuscaloosa last May with Converge Ministries, and while he could see how much work has been done, he also recognized how much the city still needs volunteers like us.

Through the rest of the week, the group worked outside, cleaning up lots that were more jungle than yard. In fact, someone who had watched The Lion King way too many times got us started singing “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”—and we couldn’t stop. For two and a half days, we sang as we cleared yards of weeds, bamboo, sticks, fence posts, and debris.

As we worked, we found wonderful opportunities to learn from each other and from the families we helped. Mercedes, who was the leader of the University of Georgia group, spoke with me when we got back to the house where we were staying, noting, “There is plenty of physical work to be done, but to me, the biggest help anyone can give is simply listening to people’s stories.”

On our last day, May 15, we helped with a Habitat for Humanity build. Two of us built a frame for displaying the address, pricing, and lot information; three others built wooden frames for the floors of the houses, and the rest helped to hammer and nail those frames into the infrastructure. We enjoyed working with the crew and getting to know them.

At the end of the week, none of us felt that we had helped enough. Patrick, for example, commented, “The first time I was here, we drove around and saw some of the houses that were completely gone and everything, so after seeing all that, I felt that I would do anything within my power to help out those communities.”

Mercedes stated that from her first experience, the people of Tuscaloosa have made her feel very much a part of the community. Whenever workers reach a milestone in a project, she is ecstatic. She says, “The town has my heart completely.” Even if she could stay for several months, she would still feel that she hadn’t done enough for these people who are now like extended family.

Drake, vice president of Baptist Collegiate Ministries and a member of Converge Ministries, also feels a special bond with Tuscaloosa and with other volunteers. He was motivated, he said, to help not only the people affected by the tornado in Tuscaloosa but also the team that took the journey to Alabama. He appreciated everything he learned from everyone else. We all hope to return there next summer.

Today Tuscaloosa still needs help, so if you are around Tuscaloosa even for a day or two, please contact the Tuscaloosa Area Volunteer Reception Center (TAVRC) at or call (205) 248-5045 to find out what you can do as a volunteer. No matter what time or day of the week, your help can improve their town and will be really appreciated.

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