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Students Offer Solace and Service at Ground Zero

By Will Mikell Article published January 15, 2002

wtc volunteers
Eleven student volunteers traveled to New York during the recess, waking up at 2 a.m. to serve meals to fire, police and construction crews at the World Trade Center. (Photo: Associated Press)

At night, UVM students stood at ground zero and noticed the little things. They saw the homemade memorials and the pictures of the dead. They read the messages of sorrow and sadness. "What stuck in my mind were the candles," said one student. "They were still burning and so right away I knew there was still mourning, there was life here."

Four months after the terrorist attacks in New York City, 11 UVM students traveled to Manhattan to spend a week of their winter break serving fire, police and construction crews, who are still working 24-hour shifts at the site. The students, participants in the first-ever Alternative Winter Break sponsored by Volunteers in Action, cooked and delivered breakfast and lunch to thousands of exhausted, bleary-eyed men and women during the first week of January.

It meant getting up at 2 a.m. to begin the food preparation. By 5 a.m., the pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon were ready. A second crew worked on lunch, bringing chili, hot dogs, hamburgers and pasta to the site and to firehouses in the area.

"They've done a wonderful job," said Rachel Lacey, a New Yorker who heads Ground Zero Food Services, part of a volunteer connection in the city. "Everyone at the University of Vermont should be very proud of them."

The idea came from junior Annie Willis, a social work major from Woodbury, Conn. "I felt like there had to be something we could do hands-on for the relief effort," Willis said. "And there turned out to be many other students who wanted to go to New York and volunteer."

Willis began planning the volunteer work around Thanksgiving. "Because of the amount of time we spent planning, I thought I'd dealt with my emotions," she said. "But the first time [seeing the site], I was very upset. It was upsetting for a lot of us. We went back to the apartment where we were staying and talked about it. What came out were feelings of caring and support."

Their time in New York, the students said, made them feel more connected to what happened on Sept. 11. Most had seen the devastation only on television or in stories in the paper. As they delivered meals, students talked to police and fire personnel, sharing personal stories.

Erin Foley, an elementary education major from West Hartford, Conn., spoke with one police officer who was called to the scene on Sept. 11. "She stopped by to see her mother, who was a teacher, because she was afraid they wouldn't see each other again," Foley recalled.

Willis says the Alternative Winter Break met its goal. "Service is what we wanted to do, and we did it. But another part of this is individual reflection. We'll be dealing with that, even after we get back, realizing how it affected us."