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ASBO Outreach Program Turns Strangers Into Family

This past spring break Stony Brook students headed for a vacation resort “paradise” unlike the destinations most college students dream of as a relief from their academic rigors — this was more like paradise lost. They travelled to Estes Park, Colorado, a tourist town where a severe flood struck in September 2013. It was one of more than a dozen towns that suffered disastrous flash flooding, when, in less than a week, nearly a year’s worth of rain fell. More than 1,500 residents lost their homes and roughly 19,000 suffered property damage.

ASBO studentsEighty-four students and three advisors from Alternative Spring Break Outreach (ASBO) did something the organization had never done before. They took a plane as one large group to aid in recovery efforts.  

“While the waters may have receded by the time we went there in March, recovery seemed as if it had barely begun,” said ASBO co-president Shamvil Bilal, a senior biology major.  “One homeowner told us that while the immediate relief effort provided food and protection, it wasn’t enough. Many business owners lost their livelihood in the flood and were struggling to make ends meet.”

During the six days they were in Estes Park, ASBO members were split into subgroups that went to separate worksites. They removed rubble that had rendered the formerly majestic Lake Estes a debris-strewn eyesore, collecting several trailers full of detritus in one day. “The students demolished a ruined metal shed and helped move logs felled by a mudslide that could be chopped into firewood to provide residents with heat.”

“That’s what’s so great about altruism,” said ASBO Co-President Emily Torkel. “You become involved in something that is bigger than any one person, and you feel connected to the work.”

ASBOThe grateful property owners treated the ASBO volunteers like royalty. “A ranch that we worked on had been submerged under 10 feet of water,” said Bilal. “The owner had to be rescued from the roof of his pickup truck, yet he fed us and had his friend come over and play guitar for us after a workday. People who were selling the remains of their homes to scrapyards just to put groceries on the table managed to provide us with lunch. To top it off, the entire town hosted a potluck dinner to honor us on our last night there.”

“There is a buzz and excitement around community service and there should be more of that everywhere,” said Torkel. “It’s been an honor to bring that passion to peoples’ lives and be part of an organization that really makes a difference.”

Christine Noonan, the organization’s advisor, said that ASBO works with the agency Community Collaborations International to determine which areas best match the size of the student volunteer groups willing to sacrifice their spring break to help struggling communities. “They find us lodging,” she said. “Many of these same students, from freshmen to seniors, from pre-med to undecided, spend summers volunteering in places such as Ghana and the Philippines.”

“You see individuals from all walks of life bonding during the trip," Bilal said. "The jock and the academic team up to figure out how to dig out a buried swing set, the dancer and the anthropologist start an assembly line to move logs while the class clowns become leaders."

“While we do amazing work for the community, in my mind the most remarkable thing it does for Stony Brook students is that it takes a group of strangers, and turns them into family."


Glenn Jochum, with contributions from first-year journalism student Joe Malone; photos by Solomon Yakubov



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