Not your typical college spring break trip...

Students from Penn State Worthington Scranton joined over 100 more from five other Penn State campuses and spent their spring break on Texas’ Gulf Coast, helping to clean up communities still struggling through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

By: Jordan Goldman

Instead of palm trees and sandy beaches, think of sledgehammers and wrecked houses. Instead of having fun in the sun, enjoying the beauty of a Florida beach, think of spending long hot days cleaning up wreckage and helping put back together a town that Mother Nature destroyed.

Such was the scene around Beaumont, Texas, where a group of 13 Penn State Worthington Scranton students traveled for the campus’ first-ever alternative spring break volunteer service trip.

Students from Worthington Scranton joined over 100 more from five other Penn State campuses throughout the commonwealth and spent their spring break on Texas’ Gulf Coast, helping to clean up communities still struggling through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the record-breaking storm that battered the region last August.

Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm with winds that blew over 130 mph, was a “storm of the century” for the people of southeast Texas. The hurricane dumped over 50 inches of rain in two days on parts of the state, causing catastrophic flooding that in some places covered entire highways in waves of water.

In Beaumont, a coastal town a little over an hour from Houston, residents were hit with 26 inches of rain in as little as 24 hours. It was here that Worthington Scranton students made a makeshift headquarters out of a community church, working on projects around the neighborhood for most of their days.

“The area we were in had maybe six or 10 houses every four blocks. You could see the fences where houses had been, but no houses to go with them,” said Matt Nied, assistant director of student services and engagement at PSWS, and the campus chaperone for the Beaumont trip. “This trip to Texas was seven to eight months after Harvey, and some standing houses still hadn’t even been touched yet.”

After the storm hit, federal and state governments scrambled to disburse emergency funding to the hardest hit areas. In total, the storm has cost over $125 billion in relief aid. However, all that money moves quite slowly through the system, even after it’s approved, so there are many residents in the Beaumont area still waiting for their relief funding.

When they saw that Penn State students had arrived to help them out, those residents were understandably excited.

“They were extremely grateful,” said Ashli Daly, a nursing major and Student Government Association president and one of the 13 students that traveled to Beaumont. “They knew that without us they would’ve been waiting much longer for relief.”

Thomas Gonzalez, a science major at Penn State Worthington Scranton, has Texas roots. “I’m from Dallas, so I was happy to hear we were coming down here to help out for spring break this year,” Gonzalez said.

The team spent much of their time cleaning up piles of debris gathered from destroyed homes, gutting water-damaged wood and demolishing soggy walls and floorboards.

“One house we were working in for the majority of our day Friday had seven feet, 10 inches of water in it during the storm. With eight-foot high ceilings, all but two inches of the house was flooded,” Nied said.

The flooding that the Houston area sustained has been compared to Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 brought devastating flood waters to the city of New Orleans. And much like the low, coastal regions of New Orleans, Houston has designated flood areas where waters are meant to hit first, sparing nearby cities the worst. Beaumont is in one of those areas.

“It’s amazing that people live here, let alone want to rebuild here, but this is a very tight-knit community,” Nied and Daly agreed.

The team found that in Beaumont, roots of the community run deep, and many residents have histories that stretch far beyond the storm.

One resident that Worthington Scranton students helped, known affectionately to them now as Aunt Jackie, counts herself among those people. Still living in the house in which her grandparents had lived, her home means more to her than what can be damaged by floods and hurricanes.

Across the street from her, her own aunt has a house, showing just how tight-knit these communities are. Still waiting on her relief aid, her house was in a state of disrepair, rife with old wood and water damage.

Penn State students helped her to clear out some of the debris, pulling out old walls and preparing the house for professional renovations. If the job sounds dangerous, it was no big deal for Nied, Daly, and the team of students.

“We had a couple legs go through the floor, but nothing major. Nature of the business,” they said, laughing.

If you’re wondering why anyone would take an alternative spring break trip to volunteer rather than party, you can ask Nied himself about the benefits of the trip.

As an undergrad, he traveled to the Dominican Republic for three winter breaks on volunteer service trips and then chaperoned another trip after he graduated to help in New Orleans after Katrina.

“These experiences really put the world around us into perspective,” he said. “They were life changing experiences for sure, they make you think about a lot of different perspectives and the kinds of things that can happen to people, even in our own country.”     

“An alternative spring break for this campus has been something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and I felt like it was something the students on our campus could really benefit from.”

Though this is the first alternative spring break volunteer service trip for Worthington Scranton, other Penn State campuses have already done work with Community Collaborations International, a company which connects student volunteers looking for alternative breaks with needy communities all around the globe, as part of the University’s alternative breaks program.

The Penn State Alternative Breaks (PSAB) program is one that provides a variety of opportunities for students to learn more about themselves, others, and the world around them through service. Programs are designed to encourage personal growth, promote civic engagement, and enrich the lives of participants.  A function of the Office of Student Activities, PSAB promotes active citizenship through education, direct community engagement and reflection.

With still so much damage left over from the hurricanes of 2017, in Puerto Rico as well as other communities in the Caribbean, Matt hopes that this will be the first of many alternative spring breaks for Worthington Scranton students.

“Nothing is concrete yet, but I think these kinds of trips will become a staple of our alternative spring breaks,” he says.

As for Daly and the rest of the students, it wasn’t all hard work and labor, as they still managed to enjoy some well-earned spring break relaxation down in Texas.

“We had fun doing the project -- even when we were back at the church, we played games, went out to dinner, and just had a great time,” she said.

“We definitely learned a lot about teamwork,” said J.J. Zielinski, a wildlife and fishery science major, and another member of the team from Worthington Scranton.

The other Penn State Worthington Scranton students who participated in this service project were:  Rawan Abu-Zaineh, an energy engineering major; Amanda Darwish, a materials science and engineering major; Alicia Kasson, a bio-medical engineering major; Mia Paone, a science major; Rebecca Remsky, a psychology major; Monique Robinson, a business major; Ariel Russell, an education major; Emily Scarfo, a nursing major; Lauren Sciabbarrasi, an information sciences and technology major; and Thomas Yocum, an engineering major.

Other Penn State campuses that participated in the Beaumont, Texas alternative spring break service project this year include:  Erie, Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg, University Park, and York.

Any students interested in getting involved with future alternative spring breaks or volunteering through the University can email Matt Nied at mdn11@psu.edu or Ashli Daly at atd5173@psu.edu.