Alternative service trip teaches lessons about gratitude

By Danielle Sullivan

Students pose for a group picture after a day of service in Atlantic City.
Students pose for a group picture after a day of service in Atlantic City.

My senior year spring break trip was not typical. It wasn’t even well planned. But after making a last minute decision to apply for the Alternative Service Break Hurricane Sandy Relief trip, I later realized it was one of the best decisions I made in college.

With just a month’s notice, I didn’t give the trip much thought. Reality hit me when I stepped into a van with 12 strangers I would be spending an entire week with. The nine-hour drive from Raleigh to Atlantic City passed quickly with small talk as we went from being strangers to friends.

We spent our first full day in Atlantic City as typical tourists. We explored the boardwalk and shopped at outlet stores. Based on what I could see, this city was picture perfect. From the casinos to the never-ending rows of stores to the famous boardwalk, it did not look like it was suffering damage from Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the coastline in October 2012.

On our first work day, we were full of adrenaline and anxious to find out what we’d be doing.  Our first work site was Louis’ house, which appeared to be in good condition. But as we walked into the house, one by one, we were stunned into silence.

I was in awe at the damage I saw. We began to discuss the tasks at hand and begin to work. We were directed to clear out the rest of his belongings, which we were told was all trash. Who were we to decide what this man thought was important to keep and what really was trash?

As we started hammering down the dry wall and plaster, the reality that four feet of water once stood in Louis’ house hit me. There was mold growing from the baseboards up the walls. As I carried a piece of moldy drywall to the side of the house, I overheard one of our chaperons explaining the purpose of our trip to a man outside. The man was in disbelief that college students would travel so far, and so long after the storm struck, to help voluntarily rebuild his city. “You’re a van of angels,” he said.

We returned the next day feeling more attached to the house than before. By the end of the day we had removed the bottom four feet of every wall. All that was left were exposed bricks, two huge piles of debris and some floor boards. This was the day we went from being friends to being family.

Instead of returning to Louis’ house we spent the next day at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission warehouse. We were greeted by a few men and loud rock music. As I made my way up each level, it was clear there was an influx of donations, but not enough space or man power to organize it all.

We were given a simple task: move large boxes of pillows from one level to shelves on another level. What would’ve taken two men a few hours to finish, we were able to complete in 45 minutes with a human assembly line. Assembly lines became very popular that day as we learned to rely on team work and each other.

My body was starting to feel the toll of manual labor by the fourth day when we were sent to Lillian’s house to help her pack her belongings.  My first thought was, “Perfect, an easy day!”

We arrived at Lillian’s house and found her sitting in a charming living room. As I walked from the front of the house to the kitchen, I could see the downward slope of the floor. The damage to the floor and foundation was not just from the hurricane; it had occurred over years and years.

I struggled with where to start and felt overwhelmed. As I helped organize the upstairs bedroom, which was now the storage room, I thought about Lillian. Thirteen strangers were in her home, packing up her life and some of her most prized possessions. I could not begin to imagine her feelings.

It turned out to be the most emotional day of the trip. We came across beautifully framed pictures. At a glance they appeared fine, but a closer look showed mold.  I saw the pain in Lillian’s eyes when she realized she had to let them go. As much as she longed to keep them, the mold would severely affect her health. Having to throw those pictures away and see Lillian’s heart break was devastating.

To everyone’s surprise, our last day in Atlantic City started with snow. We returned to the Rescue Mission, where the men at the warehouse were so grateful we returned. The day seemed to end quickly, and with it our service trip. I knew we would be heading south in the morning, but I just wasn’t ready to leave.

In one week, my life changed. I learned a new meaning of friendship. I learned what it meant to serve someone. It was a truly an experience I will never forget.

Danielle Sullivan is a senior at NC State University. She will graduate in December.

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