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Mountain Outreach Students Spend Spring Break in Letcher County and in Tornado-Stricken Indiana


Mountain Outreach members complete a wheelchair ramp for a handicap child in Letcher Co.

WILLIAMSBURG, Ky.— Every spring at University of the Cumberlands (UC), while college students around the nation are planning for a week of surf and sun, European sightseeing or family time, Mountain Outreach student volunteers are planning for a week of long, sometimes difficult, labor. While spring break week is always well-planned, this year something completely unexpected was in store for them.

March 2 brought terror and great loss to many in Kentucky, Indiana and surrounding states. One week later the Mountain Outreach volunteers loaded into vehicles ready to head out to their long-planned spring break destination in Letcher County, Ky., but with a new directive: complete jobs and head to tornado-stricken areas to help. After completing five wheelchair ramps and a drywall project in Letcher Co., Ky., where the group was hosted by Jeremiah Baptist Church, they headed north.


Just a sampling of the devastation MO helped to survey during their visit to Indiana.

“On Wednesday evening the church hosted us and the project families for a meal and a worship service in which these families were able to personally thank the students and tell the community about their experiences with the students that week,” said Hensley. “Our students led the worship service with music and testimonies about their experiences that week.”

Marc Hensley, director of MO, was given the name of a UC alum in Henryville, Ind., one of the hardest-hit areas, and planned to meet and learn how MO could help. Rich Cheek, a 1995 Cumberlands alum, is the pastor of Community Christian Church in Henryville.

“When I talked with him the first time he wept,” said Hensley. “He said he really needed us to come but was not sure what we could or would be doing.”

Nevertheless, Hensley and a crew of nine—eight veteran MO students and Jerry Thomas, MO construction coordinator—packed up on Thursday with a load of tools, generators, gasoline and powered equipment and headed for Henryville, 196 miles northwest of MO’s home base in Williamsburg, Ky. “We rolled into Henryville at 7 a.m. in the dark and under heavy fog,” said Hensley. “By 9 the fog was lifting and we began to see the extent of the damage to the area: the community was devastated.”

According to Hensley, the town’s brand new high school was completely gone, along with churches, homes, barns and livestock. Trees were “laid down like toothpicks,” and even homes and vehicles that were spared by the tornado were so badly damaged by hail that the vehicles looked like they had been wrecked.

The MO group met with CitiIMPACT, a Christian humanitarian organization that was conducting relief efforts in Henryville. CitiIMPACT officials sent the MO volunteers out in three groups to check on people that had not yet been contacted, assess damage of homes and check for structural damage that may make a home unsafe to reside in. The groups also gave people contact areas and numbers for FEMA and CitiIMPACT and took water and food to those who had none.

While in the community the group came across a man whose mobile home roof had been damaged and was leaking. The volunteers were able to seal the roof and stop the leaking. Although they were able to help some, said Hensley, one situation left the group heartbroken.

“Another project we identified and could have fixed did not turn out so well. Linda Miller is a 64-year-old widow that still works at a local nursing home as an aid. Her husband died two years ago and she told me that she has to work to make ends meet. She is also a member of Community Christian Church where Rich Cheek is the pastor. When the storm hit, her home suffered extensive hail damage both on the roof and the siding, yet she disregarded her situation, got into her car—on which the windshield and all of the windows had been busted out—and went to the church to serve. She stayed at the church for 36 hours, cooking and ministering to folks who had lost everything. An early response team put a tarp on her home to slow the leaking, but it still leaks. We measured the roof and made a materials list and decided we could roof the home before we had to leave on Sunday. After spending at least two hours on the phone, I was unable to secure the materials to help. There were just none to get. I informed our team and we went to Mrs. Linda to tell her the bad news, and we prayed with her and shed many tears, knowing that somehow God was in control.”

The group left Henryville heavy-hearted that they could not do more.

“I can only describe this experience with a sense of helplessness, while knowing that we served as best we could for the time we were there,” said Hensley. “Pastor Cheek told us when he saw us drive up in MO vehicles there were two things he knew: God had sent folks that had a heart to serve and the ability to serve.”

Although the labor is sometimes long, and the results occasionally difficult, MO students do not regret spending spring break serving others. “It’s a calling,” said Jonathan Bowman, UC senior who has spent the past five spring breaks serving with MO. “If I can spend five days being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, it’s worth it.”

The weekend of March 30, seven MO volunteers returned to Henryville and fixed the roof of Linda Miller’s home. “It was wonderful, and we were so happy to be able to do it,” said Hensley.

Located in Williamsburg, Ky., University of the Cumberlands is an institution of regional distinction, which currently offers four undergraduate degrees in more than 40 major fields of study; nine pre-professional programs; seven graduate degrees, including a doctorate and six master’s degrees; certifications in education; and online programs.