NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The end of the school year is not the most convenient time for college students to schedule yet another extracurricular activity. Those last few days tend to be jam-packed with finishing tests and papers, saying goodbye to friends, cleaning dorm rooms and moving home. It’s also true, however, that natural disasters never strike at convenient times.
On Saturday, May 19, a day after final exams officially ended and a day before Bethel College’s 114th Commencement exercises, a group of Bethel students and one admissions counselor woke up early to drive about 100 miles to Greensburg to join the clean-up effort in the wake of a devastating tornado that hit the town May 4.
“A day earlier, I’d been cleaning up my room – which looked like a tornado had gone through it,” said Jordan Penner, junior from Reedley, Calif. “Then on Saturday I found myself cleaning up in Greensburg, after an actual tornado.”
What the students encountered in Greensburg was far worse than anything in their dorm rooms. The town was still in the very early stages of clean-up, with the center of town looking like it hadn’t been touched, said Penner. Ten residents of the town of about 1,600 died in the tornado, which virtually destroyed Greensburg’s schools and businesses as well as nearly 90 percent of the homes.
The Bethel trip was entirely student-led, thanks largely to the organizational efforts of Miriam Regier, junior from Newton, who had gone to Greensburg a week earlier although she wasn’t able to join the group on May 19. The Bethel students first met with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) workers at the site of the Greensburg Mennonite Church, which was wiped out along with every other church building in town. The MDS staff directed them to their work project for the day.
Work boots, gloves, sunscreen and sack lunches in tow, Penner and 11 other students, plus admissions counselor Lowell Wyse, headed out to a small farm just outside Greensburg, where they spent several hours clearing uprooted trees and scouring the fields for debris.
“Farmers were generally encouraged by the fact that the grain elevator remained standing,” said Parker Stanley, senior from Liberty, Mo. “The farmer we worked for called the tornado ‘an excuse to retire.’ He seemed to be in pretty high spirits.”
Signs posted around town reading “We’ll Be Back” and “Rebuilding Community” reflected that sense of optimism. Penner noted that such optimism might not be possible without the work of volunteers, who “help to make it so that the community can be rebuilt.”
For Stanley, a music education major, the trip to Greensburg was a welcome change of pace.
“It’s easy for me to get distracted in college with practicing, scheduling gigs, doing homework, attending concerts, getting ready for performances,” he said. “It’s a rejuvenation of your spirit to help somebody out, particularly those who have experienced a tragedy.”
In addition to Penner and Stanley, other students who made the trip were freshmen Will Peterson, Bonner Springs, Nicole Schmidt, Newton, and Kyle Unruh, Goessel; sophomores Emily Piper, Newton, Jennifer Regier, Elbing, Paul Regier, Newton, and Matthew Root, Topeka; juniors Aaron Voth, Hesston, and Moon Yu, Hesston; and senior Melinda Stucky, Goessel.
As another form of response to the tragedy, Bethel College Admissions is offering free room for four years and free board for two years to graduating high school seniors from Greensburg who have expressed interest in attending Bethel. The offer will be extended to other Greensburg seniors, if there is interest.
“These students lost their housing, and we thought it would be appropriate to provide free housing at college,” said Barry Bartel, Bethel College president. “It still can’t replace the loss they experienced, but I am pleased that Bethel students have responded by helping clean up in Greensburg. Service is a core ethic at Bethel, and our students are demonstrating that as a natural reaction to seeing need.”
“For me, it’s a reminder that we’re part of a larger community of beings,” said Penner. “Things like this help me remember what we all share, and that I’m just one small part of all that.”
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.<a href="https://www.bethelks.edu/">