This weekend, I headed up to the west central portion of Illinois to attend my cousin's graduation. With no set schedule until that evening, there was no hurrying. That allowed me to make some stops along the way.
As I hit the the last twenty miles of Interstate 36 within Illinois (heading west), the territory became immediately familiar, and my memory flew back to almost 13 years ago. The tall, rocky ledges. The miles and miles of low, flat farmland. The Illinois River just a short distance away....
It was my senior year in college, and, through various experiences, my senior honors project became focused on a somewhat new study that was crossing the nation: service learning. I had always been heavily involved in community service - especially while there in college - and it became my main focus that year. I had attended several service summits hosted by the Lieutenant Governor's office to understand how combined service efforts were transforming communities within Illinois, and I attended LeaderShape, hoping it would help me solidify the ideas I had for our campus. While attending the life-changing experience of LeaderShape, we were asked to create a vision. And, that's what I left with: a vision for sharing the benefits of performing community service with my fellow college students on my campus - and campuses everywhere.
The vision centered around asking students to commit their spring breaks to the cause of helping others in need and using their particular gifts within this effort. Spring break service trips weren't common back in those days. While they had begun on campuses on the east coast, such as Rutgers University, it had not yet caught on in the Midwest. And, after meeting with several Break Away staff members who were based at Vanderbilt University in 1991 and 1992, I was on fire. I wanted to help. I was determined. I was especially driven because it was the fall of 1994 (going into the spring of 1995) in which I was preparing for Millikin's first alternative spring break... two full years after the flood that devastated so much property and so many people near the river banks here in Illinois. And, still, there were families who did not have their homes rebuilt. After teaming up with AmeriCorps (which was brand new then), I discovered this area, specifically the small village of Hull, IL, had been determined as the state location with the greatest service need. Even with farmers helping farmers in all of that time, there was too much damage to repair without some outside help.
I recruited and recruited in the hope that these individuals could finally have their homes back, their lives back, and their family members all under one roof. I hung poster after poster on campus. I held meetings several times a week. I went to organization meetings and asked professors if I could make announcements during class. I recruited at all times of the day (and night.) I called stores and restaurants for donations of food. I called rental businesses for donations of equipment. I called corporation presidents for donations of gasoline. I remember being so tired as I worked hard on this project, but I was also energized. I felt like I was trying everything, but I felt like I must do more.
As mom has said, our family is made of farmers who were children of farmers who were children of farmers...and so on. And, when somebody in the community needed help, my grandfathers ran to help them. There were no questions because that's how they had been taught, and they knew if they ever needed help, others would run to help them. It's a genuine community of caring that is built on love in action. Charity. Service. It has always been part of that culture: When one is down, all are down. When others are in need, you help in the ways you are able. So, with the families in mind each step of the way, I kept fighting to make Millikin University's first alternative spring break a reality... praying that the effort would be blessed with participants, safety, and progress. And, in March 2005, a group of excited students headed northwest into an adventure - blessed with those requested gifts and so many more.
I cannot express how life changing the experience was. Some individuals were excited for us because we were interviewed by the news stations and politicians in the area. But, none of that was as exciting and as rewarding as meeting the families who were in such need... seeing individuals, who seemed to have no hope at the beginning of the week, with a sparkle in their eyes as the finishing touches were being completed in rooms and houses. We started and ended each day in prayer. We discussed how the experiences were changing us. We kept journals, tracking our discoveries about the service - but mostly about ourselves. With assistance, we hung dry wall, built stairs, insulated, painted, put up paneling, ran water lines.... whatever was needed. In the evenings, we interviewed the families about the entire experience of the flood and receiving assistance from others. They felt like such a part of us that we laughed when they laughed and we cried as they cried. The service team wanted to keep their stories for all to hear, and we created oral history recordings for campuses who were considering alternative breaks in future years.
When the break was over, it was so hard to say goodbye. But, I knew the vision was only half completed. So, it was then time to set out and share the experience with as many campuses, teachers, administrators, corporate donors, and students as possible. Thankfully, the band of volunteers for the trip were just as dedicated to spreading the word as they were to lending a helping hand to the community of Hull. Each time the experience is recalled (even to this day), tears well up in the eyes of the students that set out that first year. (Even the men!) I am ecstatic that Millikin has continued with the alternative spring break each year, and students have added many more trips for fall, winter, and summer breaks in the years since.
As I look back, the spring of 1995 was one of the most rewarding times of my life. And, I have been so thankful for the continued friendships that have been kept with the people I met that March. This weekend, I was able to take some detours out in the rich, fertile farmland to see some of the homes which we had the privilege to help rebuild. Since then, so much has changed. Some our friends have left the area. Numerous structures which still bore the tell-tale flood line on their house years after the flood are showing off new siding. New homes are being built. And, then, there are things that haven't changed. The crops are peeking out from the black soil, at least 8 people waved to me as I passed them on the backroads, and the river is beautiful (but high). Despite the wonderful experience for those of us that visited Hull in 1995, I pray the memories are the only things that keep flooding back.