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Liberty University sends students to help with Hurricane Ian cleanup

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LYNCHBURG — Liberty University sent its third group of students to Englewood, Florida, earlier this month to help with Hurricane Ian cleanup efforts, all part of the disaster relief initiative LU Serve Now.

Chad Nelson, director of student development and experiential education for the LU Serve program, said students loved the experience overall.

“This is where students are really just kind of hitting pause for a week in their life,” Nelson said. “Students just find it very humbling and rewarding to be able to help others who’ve gone through difficulty.”

Hurricane Ian was a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Florida on Sept. 28 in Southwestern Florida, before heading back out to sea to return, hitting South Carolina as a category one hurricane two days later.

The university coordinated with long-time partner Samaritan’s Purse — a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization that aids people who experience natural disasters and other needs — which students worked closely with during their time in Florida.

The first two teams of students traveled to Englewood in November, and since then teams have consisted of 13 to 15 students and two team leaders.

Each group stayed in the Englewood area for a week. Nelson said students helped tear out sheetrock and flooring that had been damaged, patch holes in roofs to prevent additional rain entering the homes, dispose of personal belongings that were beyond repair with help of the homeowners and guidance from Samaritan’s Purse.

Valeria Alfageme, projects coordinator for LU Serve and a master’s student, was a team leader on an earlier trip to Florida in November. The team leader works in the houses with the students, but also takes care of logistical items on the trip and are a helping hand if students struggled and had a hard day.

Alfageme recalled her group’s experience with a homeowner as they helped her go through items within her home. Much of the homeowner’s house was had water damage from the storm and the group went through and disposed of items that were damaged by mold and water.

Alfageme said it was sad but rewarding at the end as the group got the chance to spend time with her.

“I think it’s difficult to see anybody like that, in a really hard situation just having to go through a really hard period where her house is ruined,” Alfageme said.

Associate Director at the Office of Community Life, Chris Trahant served as a team leader on the first trip in November.

He explained in an interview that as you drive through the neighborhoods, you would see “tons of earthly possessions” about five feet from the curb, waiting to be picked up.

A surprising thing to Trahant while on the trip was people in the area were actively living in the homes. He said it made the experience with the homeowners “very up close and personal” as students were able to talk to them and work with them.

“It’s been a few months, and I’m still reaping the emotional, mental, spiritual benefits of the whole thing,” Trahant said.

Isaiah Lee, a first-year student studying business with a minor in biblical studies, went with a group in mid-November. Lee said the experience is hard to put into words.

Lee worked on insulation, patching up holes on the roof and adding tarps to stop water from coming in.

He said that one week in Florida felt like “a whole lifetime.”

“It taught me to be selfless. It taught me to love other people. It taught me to be thankful, you know, thankful for life, waking up,” Lee said. “It also taught me how beautiful mankind is and how there still is hope in humanity.”

Christina Docksteader, a senior studying business administration, said overall the trip was an “eye-opening” experience.

Docksteader said her group worked on a house belonging to a woman in her 80s for most of the week.

Most of her home was damaged by the storm.

One specific thing Docksteader recalled was the first day in the home, the team had to go through the main bedroom and find a chest she had collected in high school filled with family memories and pictures. Unfortunately, they had to throw the chest away because of mold damage.

“It really just showed me this storm had taken away so much more than just the physical [items],” Docksteader said. “These things that she held onto for years were destroyed, kind of honestly, in an instant.”

Nelson said he anticipates, although it’s not solidified yet, that another team will go down and help with the continual cleanup that’s happening. He said it all depends what Samaritan’s Purse communicates to them in terms of what the needs are.

Nelson said one thing that comes to his mind is gratitude that the university affords them these opportunities.

“It seems like it’s a unique thing that the university offers and I’m grateful for it,” Nelson said.

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