Alternative Break Service Trip to NJ for Sandy Disaster Relief

Created by: Mikki Hornstein, 2012-2013 Career Advising Fellow

Today is my first day back in the office after spending last week in New Jersey, with a group of 15 students and three other Elon staff members, engaging in service projects for Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy relief. While I have had numerous opportunities to engage with students at Elon, playing a part as an advisor on this Alternative Break trip has truly been one of the best and most fulfilling experiences I have had the privilege to participate in thus far.

Before I go into the warm and fuzzies of how much I loved being involved in this trip, let me tell you a little bit about what we did. Evan Small, Special Programs Coordinator for the John R. Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, and one of the other three advisors, planned the whole trip with the help of an organization called Community Collaborations International. During the first part of our week, we partnered with Atlantic County Americorps Disaster Response and Americorps Hoopa Tribal TCCC to get down and dirty, gutting houses. The students (and advisors!) tore down dry wall, ripped up flooring, and shimmied into crawl spaces to remove wet and molding insulation. During these projects, we were able to meet with local homeowners who shared their stories of what it has been like to carry on after the tragic toll that Sandy took on the NJ coast. We also helped the Spanish Community Center in Atlantic City, where offices had been untouched since the storm. With the help of Americorps, our crew worked hard for two days — sorting through papers, disassembling cubicles, tearing up carpet, and tearing down dry wall and ceiling tile.

Left: Removing floor molding at the Spanish Community Center.
      Right: Taking a lunch break during a house gut.

During the middle of the week, we had the opportunity to switch gears and participate in other types of projects. We worked to move and sort items at a warehouse for The United Way (one of the SPDC’s employer partners); cleaned up a local beach; sorted through food and stocked shelves at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey; played with the children and offered homework help at the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City; and assisted the staff of a local thrift store run by the Family Service Association.

More photos from the trip. These students were superstars!

Participating in this trip was meaningful to me in a number of ways. First, I am from New Jersey. Though my family members were fortunate enough to escape any serious damage, I know people who lost their entire home as a result of the storm. I am so grateful to have been able to help out in such a significant way.

Second, I had the opportunity to meet new staff members in other functional areas. I had a great time getting to know Evan Small, Special Programs Coordinator for the John R. Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement; Liz Bailey, Lecturer in the Health and Human Performance department; and Nathan Thomas, College Success Advisor for Elon Academy. They were positive role models for the students and a lot of fun to be around and work with.

Finally, and perhaps most important, was my interactions with the students. Though I see and work with students every day, engaging with them in the capacity of a longer-term trip advisor was something completely new to me. I was never a resident advisor as an undergraduate student and most of my experiences as a graduate student were within the realm of academic affairs. Spending a week (24/7) with a small group of students helped me get to know them in ways that I otherwise never would have been able to, normally. I spent time with them during the van rides from NC to NJ, the time at the project sites, hanging out with them socially — playing basketball or badminton at the Brigantine Community Center and Sports Complex, and helping them reflect every night on the days events and how they were making meaning of the service projects. There were not only a lot of laughs, but we were also able to find some teachable moments that the students could reflect on and, hopefully, learn from. Though I never previously thought that I would be interested in working within other areas of Student Life (Residence Life, Student Activities, Leadership) I see how fulfilling it can be and how much impact you can have on students’ lives simply by being available to them on a different level.

Seeing the students bond quickly with each other and with the advisors, working effectively together, keeping a positive attitude during unpleasant tasks, and showing their eagerness to learn was a real treat. For some of them, it was the first time they had been further north than Virginia; for others, it was the first time they had held a hammer or participated in a long-term service project. A few students also showed leadership potential, which was encouraging for all of the advisors to see. I loved being able to witness the growth of all of the students.

Alternative Fake Break NJ Student Participants

I’m not sure where my future path will lead me, but I hope that it will include opportunities to get involved like this, to get to know students and other staff members on a deeper level. I cannot fully express how impressed I was by these students and how much I have taken away from this experience. Thank you to Evan, Liz, Nathan, and our 15 student participants.


Author: mjhornstein

Career Services Fellow at Elon University

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