By Bruce Amaro
---- — It was far from a typical spring break.
While thousands of college students headed for warm climates to soak up sun and fun during their week off from classes, seven local students had other plans.
They raked up debris and cleaned out a deteriorated building to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.
The Northern Essex Community College students and their faculty adviser spent part of their spring break in a suburb of New York City, helping restore an area destroyed by the hurricane.
Making the trip for the three-day volunteer effort were students Robert Ewusi and Nairoby Sanchez of Haverhill, Galvir Romero of Lawrence, Jillian Horyn of North Andover, Michele Simon of Epping, N.H., Kelsey Terry of Amesbury and Nathan Ko of Andover. NECC Professor Andrew Morse accompanied them.
To afford the trip, the students raised money through a bake sale that brought in more than $300. They also accepted donations. NECC provided a van for the drive to New York, with gasoline paid for with donations from the college’s political science department.
The project came together after the students’ successful efforts late last year to aid pets of the hurricane’s victims, said Simon, who was the student organizer. A group from the college’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society raised money to help recover and care for pets abandoned or lost during the storm.
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the students.
“We wanted to help more,” Simon said.
She and several other students approached Morse with their idea to go to New York. He is a history and government professor and also faculty adviser of the NECC Amnesty Intentional and the NECC Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
“The students came to me with the plan,’’ Morse said. “Some wanted to use the experience as their school project for the semester.’’
Other students told him the effort would help them with their scholarship applications.
“They had to plan, organize, raise funds, contact the agencies they would volunteer with,’’ Morse said. “It put them in position to develop responsibility for themselves and those around them.’’
He said gaining such experience is a big benefit of a project like this.
The morning after they arrived in New York and settled in, the group met a group of volunteer advisers at Idlewild Park in the Jamaica section of Queens. The park is a large wildlife refuge and sanctuary with wooden walkways leading to marshlands and canoe access points along a tidal watershed.
“There, we met with the N.Y. Care organizers, who had helped us apply for the volunteer program,” Simon said.
Then — using rakes, shovels, cutters and debris bags — they worked from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with volunteers from other parts of the country to clean up the damaged refuge.
During the trip, they also witnessed the destructive result Mother Nature’s power can have on homes.
“I wanted to see for myself what happened,” said Terry, a liberal arts biology major at NECC. “I couldn’t imagine what it is like to lose your home and everything that you know and the impact that had on those people. I wanted to do something, to understand the sense of helplessness.’’
Next, the group headed into Brooklyn’s Red Hook district, which was hit hard by the hurricane.
“That was an experience for these students,” Morse said.
“I heard about the damage down there, but I wasn’t prepared for the devastation that I saw,” Simons said.
They met people from other parts of country who had volunteered through the AmeriCorps organization. Together, those volunteers and the NECC students worked to clear debris out of a three-story building. They put on protective suits and gloves before entering the building.
“We wore that clothing to protect ourselves from the mold, mildew and poor quality air in the building,” Simons said.
Inside the building, the students saw no personal items, no furniture or appliances, “just broken walls and doors, pieces of the building lying all over the place,” Simons said.
They worked the entire day piling debris outside the building and helping dispose of it.
The students returned to Haverhill with a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that they helped people in need, Terry said. It was remarkable how a community can lose so much and still rebound, said Sanchez, and that probably impressed the students the most.