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Union students spend spring break helping with Katrina relief

Union students Amy Ashburn (left) and Eunice Sung clean paint brushes as part of their work in Gulfport, Miss.
Union students Amy Ashburn (left) and Eunice Sung clean paint brushes as part of their work in Gulfport, Miss.

JACKSON, Tenn.April 5, 2006 – When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last fall, Union University sophomore Kirby Maxwell knew she wanted to help.

“I had my heart hurt for the people down there,” said Maxwell, a Memphis native. “It was such a bad thing. I just wanted to help in any way I could.”

Over spring break, Maxwell had her opportunity. She and 12 other Union University students spent the week of March 19 in Gulfport, Miss., helping the North Carolina Baptist Men’s disaster relief group by painting houses and doing other jobs as needed.

The Gulfport team was one of 11 Global Opportunities teams Union sent out worldwide over spring break to such places as France, Romania, Honduras, North Africa, Guatemala, Canada, Boston, New York and Chicago.

Lisa Whiffen, an enrollment counselor who led the Gulfport team, said the students learned a valuable lesson about service. They wanted to do some of the more difficult jobs, like gutting houses, but instead spent much of their time painting and doing other “easy tasks.”

“One of the things they learned and I learned was that we really just needed to do what they told us to do,” Whiffen said. “Those small tasks really do fit into the bigger picture of getting those homes completed.”

One day the Union students painted a woman’s wheelchair ramp and front door, and pulled nails out of a floor. Another day they painted the outside of a house and cleaned up a yard. They spent a third day painting the inside of a garage.

“I think they gave us those jobs because someone had to do them,” said Union sophomore Eric Smith, of Dyersburg, Tenn. “We just fit the bill for those jobs.”

Late in the week, the team had the opportunity to gut a house and take insulation out of a ceiling. They also cleared shingles from a yard to help a group of Canadian men who were putting a new roof on a house.

“The last couple of days we got to work in areas where we could really see the disaster, and see how the hurricanes affected people,” said Union sophomore Blake Waggoner, of Louisville, Ky.

One couple appreciated the work of the Union students so much they sent a letter to the university praising the students.

“Today a group of students from your university arrived and were very helpful in cleaning and painting our home,” wrote Chris and Fay Stainbrook, of Biloxi, Miss. “Anything they lacked in experience, they made up in enthusiasm. It was great to find young people who are polite, motivated and respectful in their work.”

Smith said the selflessness of the disaster relief volunteers, many of whom were retired, made a tremendous impression on him.

“To me, the best part of the week was to see how this older generation of lay people were taking significant amounts of time and driving long distances to come down and just to serve with whatever skills they had,” Smith said. “That was an amazing testimony.”

Like Maxwell, Waggoner had been eager to help with the Katrina relief. He was thankful that Union provided him with the opportunity.

“Ever since the hurricane first struck I wanted to be able to get down there and help out, and be able to do something with my own hands,” he said. “As soon as I heard about the GO trip, I was really excited about it and knew that’s where I was supposed to be.”

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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