Students spend spring break helping Alabama tornado victims

March 8 2007

Thirty-five Indiana State University students answered a call for volunteers, lending their muscle to tornado-ravaged Enterprise, Ala. residents during a spring break trip that began with efforts to help Hurricane Katrina survivors along the Gulf Coast.

The students, along with three staff members, were helping homeowners in Biloxi/Gulfport, Miss. as part of Alternative Spring Break, a collaboration with Hope Crisis Response Network, an organization that works to bring relief to areas that have been struck with a natural disaster. They had planned to spend the entire seven days there, but a phone call resulted in a change of plans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency put out a call for volunteers in the wake of last week’s deadly tornado that left widespread damage in the Enterprise area. Hope Crisis relayed the call and the ISU students answered it, said Al Perone, director of student activities and organizations.

The ISU crew boarded a bus at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday for the four-hour journey to Enterprise, where they registered as volunteers at Christ the King Lutheran Church.

"We drove through a whole bunch of destruction before we even got to the church," Perone said.

They received shovels, rakes and protective gear before setting off to help those whose homes were damaged and in many cases, devastated. Perone said they received their neighborhood assignment from the fire department captain, an area the captain said not many volunteers wanted to work in.

"I told him that was true to our mission. We wanted to work where other people wouldn’t. We wanted to provide assistance to those who really needed it," Perone said.

What the students encountered in the poor neighborhood was unbelievable "Seeing the hard hit school and just walking around seeing the damage was heartbreaking. I kept picturing my hometown looking like that," sophomore recreation and sports management major Kristin Taylor from Clayton, Ind. wrote in a daily blog the students are doing about their experience.

One student went in with mixed emotions.

“Knowing, but not knowing, what to expect made me very tense,” said Lincoln Brown, a senior physical education major from Greencastle. “Going to a place where we knew people passed away was very emotional. Walking through the neighborhood looking for homeowners wanting help was touching. I feel that each homeowner I worked with was healed a little just for the fact that I could go in their home and salvage some of their belongings.”

The group found many in need of their assistance. One homeowner left a lasting impression on everyone.

“A group of us were working at a little old lady’s home and each person would bring something to her and she said that it was the happiest day of her life. Things that I take for granted, she was cherishing even in the ruins,” Brown wrote.

That lady was Lillian Ward, who had survived the tornado.

“There were only a couple of walls left standing in her house,” Perone said.

Ward initially wanted to recover one specific item, but ISU students helped her recover much more.

Perone said students recovered many items – Ward’s Bible, photos, her grandson’s high school diploma, a plaque she received as ‘senior citizen volunteer of the year’ - in addition to clothing, linens, dishes, appliances and her dining room table.

“She was so excited about everything that we found buried under her walls. Just to see her expression was priceless, just like today,” according to Josh Scheible, a senior criminology major from Greenwood.

“I couldn’t drag them away from helping her. She took my business card and wants to stay in touch with the students,” Perone said.

Ward’s faith and spirit left their mark on one student.

“One thing I asked myself is, ‘How is she still so happy after all this?’ asked sophomore Matt Adkins of Elkhart. “It takes someone really special to maintain such high hopes and spirits. Lillie Ward was worth the four hour drive and I wanted to help her as much as I could. If it was my choice, I would have stayed longer. Anytime I’m having trouble, with anything, I will think of what I saw today and hopefully have a fraction of the hope and spirit of Lillie Ward.”

In addition to providing assistance to Ward, members of the group worked at a park and a daycare.

"I helped a woman, Miss Williams, who owned a day care center that was destroyed,” Scheible reported.

The students left Enterprise at 6 p.m. Wednesday night to return to the Biloxi/Gulfport area, where they will continue relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina victims until Saturday.

For Laura McAhren, a senior food service management major from Charlottesville, Ind., the one-day experience was very fulfilling.

“To be able help to those people that really needed it was so rewarding,” McAhren wrote. ”We were helping people pick up the pieces of their lives and trying to salvage whatever they could. To be able to see the joy and gratitude in their eyes and to feel it in their and our hearts is something that will have an everlasting effect on me for the rest of my life.”

For others, it was much more.

“Each person that I can give a hug and an ear to listen may heal just a little faster. The only thing I would have changed would have been to help more people. As each day goes by, I grow fonder and fonder of everyone around here and it makes me want to make a living out of helping people,” Brown wrote.

To learn more about the students’ experiences in Mississippi and Alabama, go to Spring break blogs

A helping hand
Indiana State University students (left to right) Pierre Smith of Gary, Ashton Guthrie of Henryville and Matt Adkins of Elkhart clear debris left by last week's tornado in Enterprise, Ala. The three are among more than 30 ISU students assisting with tornado recovery efforts during spring break.

Ready to work
Indiana State University students (left to right) Caitlin Brewster, Laura McAhren, Michael Hagenow, Brittany Parker, Bea Mack, Aaron Hall arrive in Enterprise, Ala. ready to help victims of last week's tornado. More than 30 ISU students are spending their spring break helping with tornado recovery efforts.

Found 'em
Caitlyn Brewster (left) of Bainbridge was among Indiana State University students who helped Lillian Ward recover clothes and other items lost during last week's tornado that struck Enterprise, Ala. More than 30 ISU students are helping tornado victims as part of Alternative Spring Break.

Writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or

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Story Highlights

Students who headed for the Gulf Coast for Alternative Spring Break to help with continued rebuilding from the devastating 2005 hurricane also spent a day helping residents of Enterprise, Ala. in the wake of a deadly tornado.

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