Despite general grumblings of how today’s youth spend too much time texting or living in cyberspace, students enrolled in Alfred State College’s heavy equipment operations program  would certainly silence those grumblers.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Professor Mark Payne  asked his students if any of them would be interested in a trip to the Schoharie area to assist in flood relief efforts there. At the time, the plans were tentative, and students would have to be prepared to leave early (4 a.m.) Saturday morning and work long hours Saturday and Sunday.
Once the logistics were worked out with disaster relief officials, Payne and his student volunteers got to work on their own logistics.
“Without the help of Roy Gay, Wellsville, a local businessman who often lends us equipment and know-how, we wouldn’t have been able to transport the necessary equipment to the site,” says Payne. “And without our students’ compassion, skill, and dedication, as well as their willingness to take on challenges, this trip would not have been as successful as it was.”
In addition to their equipment needs, team members also needed food and shelter for their weekend. Other members of the Alfred State community stepped up to the plate to help out. Students in the Culinary Arts Department  filled two coolers and several boxes with provisions for the crew, and Dr. Kathleen Sellers, a recent addition to the ASC faculty, provided a spaghetti dinner for all team members (all the students also commented on the wonderful dinner and homemade desserts!), a room for the sole female student on the trip, and arrangements with SUNY Cobleskill to house the males in the group.
The Alfred State team loaded an excavator, chipper, and Gay’s track loader onto Gay’s trailer (he also donated the fuel for the trip), loaded up an ASC trailer, hooked it to a van, and away they went.
When they arrived at their destination, they were given a map and a list of tasks that needed to be completed.
Of the students who made the trip, three of the seniors, TC Carroll, Bath; Angelia Cavanaugh, Whitesville; and Jonathan Wist, Deposit, were on hand recently to talk about their experience.
“The devastation was unbelievable,” noted Carroll, as he recalled what he saw when the group arrived in Schoharie. “Where there were houses, there was nothing,” he said with awe in his voice. “The people told us they were given only minutes to grab what they could and evacuate. They lost everything. I was brought to tears by the depth of their gratitude at our being there.”
Wist, who had seen flooding before in his home town, expressed the views of the group when he said, “We heard they were in rough shape and how much they needed the help. How could we not go?”
“You just can’t imagine the devastation,” said Payne. “You hear news reports that the unrelenting rain had caused the Schoharie River to overflow its retaining walls, sending water coursing down city streets, destroying buildings, and even lifting a huge barn from its original site and dropping it down several hundred yards away. We’d heard that the water level was at one time higher than 25 feet!
“But until you see it first-hand, and witness the damage and the people’s devastation, first, you feel grateful for being spared, and then you roll up your sleeves and get to work helping the folks who weren’t so lucky.”
Most of the work performed by the Alfred State group included cleaning up the debris—that is the detritus which was once the homes and businesses of a small community, and carting it to a central dumping spot.
“Because we had the equipment and the certified drivers, we were allowed to use some of the town’s (Schoharie) trucks as the regular crews were at their own homes cleaning up,” notes Payne. “And thanks to Jonathan’s family’s business, Wist Lumber, Deposit, which lent us a dump truck, and another local student (Paul Briggs, Schoharie) for the use of a pickup and dump trailer, we were able to keep working while loads of debris were sent to the central dump site.”
Cavanaugh, the only female crew member, says that “if we hadn’t had to come back to school, we’d have all stayed to keep helping. We did a lot, but there was so much more that needs to be done.”
When it was time to return to Alfred State, team members decided to give the remainder of the food they brought with them to some of the families they had met. In fact, there was so much left, that three families benefited from their largesse.
“One fellow, who had been eating MRE’s (meals ready to eat) for weeks, had tears in his eyes when he saw the sandwich meat and other fresh food we dropped off,” noted Gay.
When asked how they felt about the experience, the students were of one mind when they said they were just a group of average folks helping out other average folks.
“We are happy that we have the skills and the tools to help out,” said Carroll. “And when you have those advantages, you should do what you can for others.”
Additionally, the students wanted to thank the folks at Alfred State who made the experience possible: Dr. Steven Tyrell , vice president for student affairs, who made the contact with the relief workers; Sellers, who arranged dinner and housing for them; Gay, who lent his equipment, time, energy, and talent to the project; Culinary Arts who provided good eats; and Professor Payne, who led the charge.
Payne is unstinting in his praise of his students: “Not only did they do yeomen’s work, not only did they ably use their skills, not only did they work well with people outside our group, but the depth of their compassion and their ability to ‘hit the ground running’ did the college proud.”
Other students who participated in this relief effort, but were not available for the interview, included Jon Cook, Campbell; Cody Madigan, Bath; Adam Kline, Johnstown; Mike Kashdin, West Seneca; Chris Smith, Rochester; Joseph Capuano, Knox; Josh Wilcox, Middleburgh; and Paul Briggs, Schoharie.