Olivet collegians prove: There is work for all on a volunteer disaster recovery team

Olivet College students at their Hattiesburg work site

True or false?

You can help restore a storm-damaged roof even if you are afraid of heights, or have a history of falling, or don’t know a thing about replacing a roof.

Answer: True.

Twenty-two students and their two advisors from the United Church of Christ-affiliated Olivet College in Michigan learned – and proved – that there is work for everyone on a volunteer disaster recovery work team.

They spent their week-long spring break with R3SM, a disaster recovery group in Hattiesburg, Miss., replacing a homeowner’s roof, which was damaged in the 2017 tornado.  Now there’s only one more home to restore from that disaster. Next up: Recovery from storms in April 2022.

UCC Global H.O.P.E.’s volunteer and disaster ministries helped match the Olivet College team to R3SM – Recover Rebuild Restore Southeast Mississippi.

“The ethnically diverse Olivet group wanted to serve in an ethnically diverse community in work led by people of color” – in R3SM’s case, the executive director and construction manager, said Michael Fales, Olivet’s Director of Service Learning and Campus Ministries. “That made Hattiesburg and R3SM a great match.”

Most participants clambered right up the ladder and onto the roof. The few who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – were employed carrying away the old, damaged shingles that their fellow volunteers tossed down to the yard.

“Everyone was willing to do something new,” said Savannah Baker, an Olivet College senior. “We worked together to do something we’d never done before. It was empowering to do that with classmates.”

Echoed Chad Enwright, Sr., “The first day, on the front yard, the construction supervisor pulled metal sheets off a truck and said, ‘Let’s get to work.’ It was amazing how quickly we were working together.”

The students also constructed an accessibility ramp for the homeowner, a middle-aged single man on a fixed income with mobility limitations, unable to repair the roof or build the ramp himself or to pay for them.

The homeowner “was amazed people would drive 18 hours to do the work they did for someone they didn’t know,” said R3SM’s Executive Director Mavis Creagh.

Creagh said the volunteers from Michigan were “our first college team to stay in R3SM’s volunteer house since the start of the pandemic. That meant a lot to us. And the roof they did is amazing.”

Fales said the college offers several work trips during the course of a year, including weekend trips when school is in session. “We’ve gotten pretty good at it and students like it.”

“Olivet’s trips are a perfect example of life-changing student programs,” said the Rev. Elena Larssen, UCC Minister for Volunteer Engagement. “The Association of American Colleges and Universities names service learning a ‘Top 10 High-Impact Practice’ for students. It increases social belonging, sharpens academic skills and opens new realms of meaning for young adults. Reflecting with a campus ministry team and chaplain elevates service trips from useful to transformational.”

Fales commented that Olivet College was one of the first in the United States to admit women and people of color on an equal basis with white men. Today the college remains racially diverse and includes a strong LGBTQ presence, he said.

Service Learning participants and volunteers tend to include proportionately more students of color than in the overall Olivet College population, Fales said.

Olivet’s spring break work team members used their “down” time to visit downtown Hattiesburg and taste Southern “soul food.”

“Hattiesburg is as far south as I’ve ever been,” Enwright said. “It was good to go somewhere we’d never been and to help someone out. You don’t really feel what you can do until you are there and see how someone’s life can change because of your work.”

Volunteers’ lives change, too. Olivet College 2018 graduate Jacob Richards participated in service learning as a student, felt the call to ordained ministry and is now Olivet College’s Community Service Coordinator.

“When students go places and change a life,” he affirmed, “their own lives change.”

On Facebook: R3SM

Categories: Disaster Updates

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