Spring Break Service Trip to Greensburg, The Greenest Town in America

Kelsey O'Boyle is a New Dream Development Intern whose service-learning leanings led her to an unforgettable Spring Break this year.

Part 1: “Where are you going for spring break?”

I was asked this question numerous times a day before classes ended and the George Washington University’s spring break began. Cabo, Cancun, Puerto Rico were the typical answers to the ubiquitous question. My answer, “Kansas”, brought a befuddled, and often disgusted, look to the face of my inquirer every single time. Why Kansas? There are no beaches in Kansas, no all inclusive resorts, no fruity, tropical drinks. But there is the beginning of the “greenest” city in America in a small town called Greensburg, two hours west of Wichita.

An EF5 tornado hit the small town in May 2007, absolutely devastating everything in its path. 95% of the town was destroyed in the 1.8 mile wide tornado, and most of its residents were displaced. But Greensburg was different from any other town I could have imagined: its recovery plan was not only to rebuild stronger, but to rebuild greener… or GreenEST.

After learning about Greensburg in May 2008 when George W. Bush visited the town on the one year anniversary of the tornado, my friend Matt and I proposed our service-learning trip to Greensburg. Traveling to Greensburg would fulfill the decision I’d made upon returning from a service trip to New Orleans last March through GW’s Alternative Spring Break Program; at that time I decided to spend every college spring break performing service. Matt and I choose 11 eleven participants from a batch of applications, and began the vigorous fundraising that took over 6 months. On March 15, 2009 we landed in Greensburg, KS not knowing what to expect.

We drove through two hours of farms, fields and cows into the never ending Kansas horizon. Upon arriving in Greensburg, it was clear something was wrong. Unlike the other small towns through which we passed, Greensburg had a small scattering of houses, and expanses of empty fields. There were areas filled with what we later learned to be FEMA trailers for those who still had not rebuilt. The trees were still “in shock” after two years – meaning they had no leaves, and looked completely dead. We stayed in the Volunteer Village along with other volunteers, mostly from Kansas and Nebraska. Most other volunteers were shocked when they learned we had travelled all the way from Washington, DC.

Our group was not sure what types of volunteer work we would be doing throughout the week. Some of us wanted to work with Green technology, others hoped to be building houses. The first morning, at 6 am, we were assigned to our first project: removing tornado debris from a plot of land. This was not exactly what we expected to be doing in America’s Greenest city, though we soon came to realize that the tasks we completed were nowhere near as important as the people we encountered while working. While clearing the lot, which was empty except for the foundation, driveway and debris, we found perfume bottles, plaid shirts, coloring books, lawn chairs and Christmas decorations. We spent over eight hours clearing debris that day, speculating about the owners of the blown-away home.

paintingEach day our group went from home to home doing odd jobs, usually for senior citizens rebuilding after the storm. We continued to find our interactions with the Greensburg residents to be far more memorable than the small tasks we performed. One afternoon, our group stained trim for the interior of a home being built by an eighty year old couple; their retelling of the tornado gave us the chills. Another day we painted the exterior of a tool shed for an older widower while he watched with a smile. We spent an extremely memorable afternoon in the home of Cretia Barnes, a spunky 87 year old widow who invited us to her 88th birthday party she’s throwing for herself this May. Our group repainted her back porch, but I don’t think she even noticed, as she was too busy telling us stories of her farm, her hunting days and what Greensburg was like when she was a young girl. As we drove off in our pickup trucks, she stood on her front lawn crying, waving goodbye to her first “East-Coast” friends.

We did not install solar panels or wind turbines. We didn’t even put up siding on a house or hammer beams into a roof. Our jobs were small and simple, but each and every task we performed had its own significance and meaning to the residents for whom we worked. The small odd jobs were greatly appreciated by the homeowners who longed for the perfect homes they had before the storm hit and for someone to listen to their stories.


Read part 2 of Kelsey's trip

Tags: College, Environment, Green energy, Green technology, Greensburg, Kansas, Rural, Service, Student, Volunteer

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