Each spring break, a number of MCLA students volunteer their time and efforts to a community in need of help. While past efforts include multiple trips abroad, Spencer Moser, coordinator of the College's Center for Service and Citizenship, felt the timing was right to do something within the United States.
He focused on the mountains of Appalachia, and found a program in the rural village of David, Ky., where college students provide mentoring to high school students at The David School.
But just a week before the MCLA group was scheduled to arrive in the eastern Kentucky town, a tornado ripped through the region, widening the trip's scope to include disaster relief: MCLA students found they were the first outside responders, on the scene nearly a week before representatives from the Red Cross and FEMA arrived, according to Moser.
As a result, the six MCLA students who participated in this year's Alternative Spring Break program, along with others from Notre Dame University of Indiana, the University of Kentucky and St. Ambrose University of Iowa, took part in front-line, tornado relief work.
The group was shocked by what they encountered in Kentucky.
"It looked like a bomb had gone off. I've never seen anything like it," Moser said. "It was like the town was under siege. Road signs were bent in half and homes were left looking like matchsticks.
"As we arrived that first Sunday, we were all in the van. Music was playing and the students were talking and having fun. All of a sudden, we went around this curve and our eyes went to the side of the mountain. It was like the mountain was gone. The trees weren't just snapped in half. Almost every tree was uprooted and thrown.
"In the town, the homes had been picked up and turned upside down - if there was anything left of them," Moser said. "There was insulation, clothing and even a car up in the trees. The music was turned off, and there was a hush in the van. Some students were crying. The world just changed as we went around the corner."
Although The David School was not damaged, many of the students live in the area where the tornado hit. The MCLA group began by delivering food to a small town nearby, and met some families who live there. They worked alongside them, cleaning up what they could and separating trash from salvageable items.
At the same time, other MCLA volunteers followed David School high school students from class to class, providing academic tutoring throughout the day.
Moser said the students found the experience to be deeply interesting and enlightening. In addition to bringing them closer together, they gained a greater appreciation for what they have. And, because quite a few of them plan to become teachers, the students found it expanded their awareness of what it takes to teach a very challenging and marginalized student demographic - many of whom will be first-generation high school graduates.
"It completely expanded their idea of diversity in this country and how they might want to apply their education in addressing some of the challenges that they weren't aware of before the trip," Moser said. "I heard many students say, 'I want to continue to work with poorer communities. I want to be involved in grassroots, coalition building.' This experience had a profound impact on them."