University of Vermont

Rebuilding Vermont: New Course Helps Students Help the State

Junior Dylan Estabrooks, one of 26 students who signed up for a service learning course designed to help victims of Hurricane Irene, hauls debris away from a house that was destroyed in the flood at the Weston Mobile Home Park in Berlin.

As students fanned out across the Weston Mobile Home Park in Berlin, Vt. during a service-learning course created in response to Tropical Storm Irene, it became apparent they would be providing more than just physical labor to residents of the park where 70 of 83 mobile homes were destroyed by flooding.

Some residents like Glenn French, a Navy veteran whose mobile home and everything in it was destroyed, just wanted someone to talk to about his loss and get some advice on what to do next. “We lost everything,” says French standing in the middle of a row of decimated mobile homes. “It’s not the furniture or material things you miss, it’s the old photos and other personal memories you can’t replace. My wife cries all the time. She’s sad about losing old photos and pictures of our grandchildren. I’m just grateful for all the help we’ve received. It means a lot to us.”   

Listening to flood victims and finding ways to meet their needs were among the primary goals of Carrie Williams Howe, director of UVM’s Community-University Partnerships & Service-Learning, and co-instructor Kelly Hamshaw, a research specialist in community development and applied economics, when they created “Rebuilding Vermont: Community Engagement in Disaster Preparation and Relief” in less than a week.

“We wanted to create this course so that our response would last beyond the initial clean-up, making a commitment to long-term recovery,” says Howe, who was pleased to see 26 students from a wide variety of disciplines juggle their class schedules to add the course. “In addition, we wanted to give our students the opportunity to contribute to recovery while also thinking critically about what that engagement means.”

More than just volunteers

Characteristic of the record number (35) of service-learning courses being taught this fall at UVM, students have combined their classroom study with volunteer work in the field and reflection on that experience. In the first weeks of the course, partially based on a course created at Canterbury University in New Zealand after a series of earthquakes, students traveled to flood-damaged areas of the state and took a trip to Berlin to help distribute Carhartt clothing donated through the Williston, Vt. store Lenny’s Shoe and Apparel.

Kelsea Kuvaja, a junior human services and family development major from Maine, spent part of her day cleaning up debris outside the mobile home of Bernie Corliss, a longtime resident of the park who was rescued along with his wife by a boat whose driver happened to see the light on his cell phone. “I instantly wanted to take this course when I heard about it, because I was looking for ways to help,” says Kuvaja. “It’s my favorite class even though it’s been difficult to see what people are going through. Some of the homes had signs on the door that said, ‘Take everything.’ I think it was too much for some people to handle.”

As time passes and the needs of victims change, students will focus more on matching those needs of survivors with appropriate recovery services. At the end of a recent class, students signed up for projects involving the organization of fundraising events for farmers impacted by the flood; coordinating weekly clean-ups and staffing the volunteer center at the Waterbury Flood Recovery Center; and helping upgrade an economic development database that matches people with jobs.

“I signed up for the course because I wanted to help other people who were affected by the storm,” says junior Dylan Estabrooks, a community and international development major whose brother’s house in Northfield was damaged by the flood. “Even though federal aid has been helpful in other national disasters, local help is really needed and helps build community. We talked about the importance of asking what kind of help people need, not what we think they need. In some cases that means hauling things away, but for others it means listening to their stories.” 

Utilizing faculty expertise

In studying disaster preparation and relief, the course has drawn on existing faculty expertise. Hamshaw and Dan Baker, assistant professor in CDAE, landed a three-year, $400,000 grant in 2010 from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Disaster Resilience for Rural Communities Program to improve disaster resilience for the 7,000 lots that are located in the state’s 245 mobile home parks (about one-third of the state’s 22,000 mobile homes) through hazard identification, community organization, emergency planning, and improved coordination between key stakeholders. Park residents will be able to access an online database featuring individual park profiles and a Building Resiliency Guide for Mobile Home Parks with best practices for improving disaster preparedness in parks.

Baker, along with former students Erin Makowsky and Kendall Kahl, developed a mobile home deconstruction project, a unique way to recycle about one-third of mobile home materials, saving the owner the bulk of the $3,000-plus cost of disposal. The State of Vermont is using this information to safely and economically recycle some of the mobile homes damaged in the flood.

Alice Fothergill, associate professor of sociology, added her experience studying the effect of disasters on  children and families to the discussion in the planning of the service-learning course, and brought students from her “Hazards, Risk and Vulnerability” course to the Weston Mobile Home Park. Fothergill says the experience of students helping family members clean up and remove personal belongings from their homes -- in some cases from rooms of teenagers not much younger than themselves -- really hit home for her students. “I think it put a face to the tragedy and got them thinking about the different ways something like this can affect families.”