“My whole life…is in that pile.”
Those words, spoken by a female homeowner in Beach Haven West, Ocean County, shook Rowan sophomore Tim Boonstra to the core. “That pile” was a heaping mound of rubble—furniture and sheetrock, wood and insulation. Trash was all that remained of the woman’s home after Hurricane Sandy decimated parts of the Jersey Shore last month.
As he listened to the woman, Boonstra, an exploratory studies major, couldn’t help but be proud that he had volunteered with other students for Rowan Relief, a University-wide effort to provide short- and long-term assistance to Hurricane Sandy victims.
“Hearing her say that made me realize how bad this situation really was,” said Boonstra, of Midland Park, who volunteered on a mission trip to Uganda last year.
“I knew then I was going to do as much as I could to help these people. Going out to assist people who had lost everything made me realize that this could happen to anyone, anywhere. Not just in Africa or other places. But even right in our own state.”
‘Entire townships need help’
That has been the sentiment from students who have volunteered hours to sort and distribute donations, gut homes, clear debris, and prepare meals for hurricane victims, said Andrew Perrone, assistant director of Service Learning, Volunteerism and Community Engagement (SLVCE). SLVCE is organizing the on-site volunteer opportunities through Rowan Relief, a student-centered initiative.
“What has struck me is that all of the students who have volunteered to work have all walked away saying, ‘Wow. I didn’t know it was this bad,’” Perrone said. “In some of these Shore towns, all of the houses need work. Entire townships need help.”
At this point in the recovery effort, volunteers—at all skill levels—absolutely are critical, said Perrone. All Rowan Relief efforts are open to students, faculty and staff and alumni.
“There is something for everyone to do—from doing heavy construction to sweeping up to making and serving lunch to handing out supplies,” Perrone said.
Rowan Relief was created years ago to assist tsunami victims and, in recent years, also has helped earthquake and hurricane victims nationally and internationally. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, students, faculty, staff and administrators are continuing to uphold that Rowan tradition of service to the community in a multitude of ways.
In the hours and days after the hurricane, the Rowan community went into overdrive to collect donations including food, cleaning supplies and other items to assist victims. A number of groups gathered clothing, including the Department of Public Safety, the American Federation of Teachers, and President Ali Houshmand and his wife, Farah.
Rowan Relief’s first on-site opportunity brought aspiring physicians Shardae Williams and Crystal Ramos to the Salvation Army in Atlantic City to sort and distribute food and clothing.
“As college students, we have the basics we need and I think we should help out if we can,” said Williams.
On campus, Rowan’s Student Government Association is selling T-shirts to raise money for the American Red Cross—and attracting orders from alumni far and wide.
Sharing their talents
Some students and faculty members took a more personal approach to their work. Freshman accounting and finance major Spencer Arnold, 18, a veteran volunteer firefighter from Manasquan, served his community assisting flood victims for an entire week.
Sophomore art major Derek Koch created a “Restore the Shore” graphic design, then teamed up with his summer employer, ERGO Clothing of Lakewood, to make T-shirts, hoodies, hats and car magnets with all proceeds going to hurricane victims. Thus far, a whopping $450,000 has been raised for the non-profit “Waves for Water” organization.
Rowan’s Campus Players, a student organization dedicated to theatre and dance, organized a #RUJerseyStrong. Depicting the themes of “revive, rebuild, recover,” students performed monologues, scenes, songs and dances to raise relief funds.
Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Beena Sukumaran put her scholarly expertise to work in the Shore area. As a member of the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance, Sukumaran and her team dedicated the first weekend of November to determining the damage left in the wake of the storm. The group surveyed various bridges and communities along the Jersey Shore, from Brigantine to Belmar.
“You do hope you can make a difference—and ideally there will be lessons learned for the future so we don’t see repeats of this,” said Sukumaran.
Mechanical engineering major Jaimie Reiff, whose hometown, Long Beach Island, was rocked by the hurricane, is serving as a student board member on Rowan Relief. She’s also working with her club, the American Society of Naval Engineers, to organize fundraisers.
Rowan’s outpouring of support and the resolve of the hurricane victims have been astounding, students who have volunteered for clean-up efforts agreed. Clearly, they say, Jersey Strong is an accurate depiction of the Garden State.
“The destruction from the hurricane touched my heart, but the strength the people had to rebuild and appreciate all the help and the things they had really touched me,” says freshman accounting major Guillermo Lopez, who volunteered in Beach Haven West. “I was moved in so many ways.
“I learned that things come and go, but we need to learn to appreciate everything we have—and be grateful that there are people out there willing to help.”