Spurred on by a desire to help nearby neighbors recover from the devastation of Tuesday night’s storm, dozens and dozens of Keuka College students and staff got to work Wednesday clearing out muddy debris in the village of Penn Yan.
A morning email alert sent to all members of the campus community served as a call for volunteers. Due to travel warnings in effect, the College announced shuttle runs every two hours to safely transport any willing workers to posts in town. Rev. Eric Detar, the College chaplain, said he and two other staffers rode in on the first shuttle at 11 a.m.
About a dozen volunteers – mostly students – arrived on the 1 p.m. shuttle but after additional emails from the vice presidents of student affairs and academic affairs encouraging student and faculty support, more volunteers arrived at the shuttle pickup area outside Saunders hall. So many showed up to work, the original schedule was scrapped and shuttles started running every 30 minutes.
“I bet we’ve had between 75-100 volunteers help out,” Detar said by phone about 4:15 p.m. from his post on Main Street. “There’s 10 students walking by me right now, covered in mud.”
The first local business to receive help was the Once Again Shoppe, where volunteers salvaged what they could from thousands of dollars worth of damaged toys stored in the consignment shop’s basement. The toys were earmarked for the annual Christmas for the Needy annual benefit drive – a hallmark in the Penn Yan community – and most of them had to be thrown away in giant dumpsters, Detar said. After the damaged goods were removed, volunteers used Shop-Vacs and shovels to tackle the mud.
“It was just so sad to see all the hard work get ruined, because [Christmas for the Needy] is a huge part of this community,” said Mitch Leet ’16, who has served two years as a community service advocate for the College, and just this year, coordinated the campus’s Angel Tree gift drive. “We were asking people what others could do to help them replace this inventory.”
Detar said College relief efforts were concentrated mostly on local businesses, with College volunteers laboring to removing debris from flooded basements and other low-lying storage areas hit hard by the storm. Workers came to the aid of those at Calvary Chapel of Penn Yan, Deano’s Outdoors store, and the Penn Yan Diner, where some nine feet of water had rushed through the basement, Detar said. The diner is operated by College alumnae Carrie Ahearn.
“Right now, they’ve got an assembly line sending stuff up – it’s mud and trash – from the basement to the dumpster,” he said. “We’ve been working in Long’s bookstore, too, and there’s tons of stuff that needs to be thrown out. Plus, we’ve had students walk through the streets with grocery carts, distributing bottled water and snacks. They’ve talked to some families and helped them a bit.”
Leet and a handful of other student volunteers wound up at the Sampson Theater, where some sets were so waterlogged, “they had to be trashed. It was just awful – people were sinking through the floorboards. The theater wasn’t in great condition to begin with and now this.”
Freshmen Rachel Hurley and Laura Alderson, both occupational science majors, reported for service around 3 p.m. and were also part of the group helping clean out the theater. The two found themselves in a nearby barn, helping unload pickup trucks carting wet wood and salvaged set pieces from the theater into temporary storage.
Hurley said seeing photos online of the devastation prompted her to action. Much of this storm damage reminded Hurley of the flooding many in her hometown of Sayre, Penn. experienced about three years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, she said. At that time, much of the Southern Tier, including cities like Binghamton and Owego, N.Y., were under water for weeks. Alderson’s hometown lies in Warren Center, Penn. and she said she felt awful for those in Penn Yan who could not even leave their houses because the mouths of their driveways were washed away in the storm.
“I feel like I’ve taken advantage of all their amenities at Tops or other stores and now I actually get to give back and help them out,” Alderson said. “On the way back, we were riding in the back of the pickup truck and there were several citizens in Penn Yan sitting on their porches, waving to us and calling out ‘Thank you kids, so much!’ It was precious.”
Closer to campus, the handful of volunteers Leet served with Wednesday wound up at a West Lake Road home, assisting an older couple whose garage had filled with debris as water rushed down the steep hills across Route 54A and through their backyards.
“The water is not rushing as much now, but there are still ‘waterfalls’ coming down in some places, and the road was just filled with debris. We had to hold hands to get across it, and I forgot for a second we were walking in the middle of a road because there was so much water,” Leet said, adding that the couple asked for help documenting the damage for insurance purposes. “They just had mud everywhere in the garage. I took pictures of everything.”
Despite the devastation, working together with fellow students to help neighbors in need, helped Hurley bond with those in the campus community, she said, adding how many faces she was happy she recognized today.
“I think that we realize we can all come together to help people out,” Hurley said.
Community service is a hallmark of Keuka College with numerous clubs and groups conducting service projects and fundraisers throughout the academic year. The College even hosts an annual county-wide day of service, in conjunction with the Yates County Chamber of Commerce, known as Celebrate Service … Celebrate Yates (CSCY). The strong focus on community service has helped earn the College a spot on the U.S. President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for the past seven years.
Detar said College relief efforts would continue Thursday and officials were waiting to hear if support would also be needed at Camp Good Days and Special Times in Branchport, which had reportedly been hit hard as well. Additional emails from campus officials indicated volunteer service shuttles will again run every half-hour, starting at 9 a.m. with the final shuttle returning to campus at 5 p.m.