By Shira Kipnees ’15
Staff Writer

A group of 19 F&M students and four adults who are either F&M staff or friends of the Catastrophe Relief Alliance (CRA) participated in relief efforts from Jan. 3 through Jan. 11 in Bastrop, TX, a place victimized by wildfires.

The students stayed in a Baptist church in the neighboring town of Smithville, TX, and worked in both Smithville and Bastrop.

This trip not only assisted in rebuilding the physical damage done to the area and help aid, but as Roberta Machin ’15 said, “The mission of each CRA trip is to aid the victims of natural disasters by providing physical labor and emotional support. Our efforts strive to rebuild both homes and lives.” She also added, “Sometimes just listening to their memories of the disaster and its aftermath encourages the victims to find hope in the people closest to them. We try to help those in need who don’t have the resources, either in terms of manpower or for financial reasons.”

During the trip, the students were spread out among four groups and each group tackled a different project each day.

“We split up to tackle a variety of projects. I spent some time working on an outdoor staircase and cutting siding for a house, but another day organized a man’s receipts,” said Stephanie Lifshutz ’13. “Any kind of help we can offer is useful, because even a seemingly small job makes a big difference to the person we’re helping. They know that complete strangers care, and they don’t have to rebuild their lives, literally, on their own.”

In addition, the students were spread out among a few houses doing similar work on each house.

“Our group was spread out among several different houses, where we helped with a variety of projects, including shower installation, trim and finish work, deck and ramp building, and clearing debris,” Machin said.

The students were moved by this experience, and learned a great deal.

“I was able to hear a lot of personal stories from the fire victims, and I am amazed at the resilience shown by people who had literally lost all of their possessions in a matter of hours,” Machin said. “It overwhelms me to see strength and hope shining from the faces of the individuals coping with this tragedy.”

While the group did experience some bad weather during the trip, they still managed to find ways to help out and enjoy themselves.

“It was a wonderful trip. I had the opportunity to work on a few different job sites, and therefore got to work with different students. We unfortunately encountered some bad weather, but that didn’t lower the group’s morale,” Lifshutz said. “That day, I worked with Kerri Symes and Andy Gulati, who is our club advisor and an F&M librarian, on organizing someone’s receipts, which is a huge help, and something we wouldn’t have thought of doing on any other day.

While the weather was sometimes difficult because we obviously couldn’t use power tools outdoors in the rain, we worked through it.”

There were other challenges the group faced.

“This trip was more challenging than previous trips because most of the members of our club were sick at some point during the week,” Machin said. “There were also a couple days that it down-poured for several hours at a time, which was ironic considering the near-constant state of drought in Bastrop and Smithville. This combination of factors meant that some of us couldn’t work for more than one day.”

The group also experienced some fun and rewarding activities.

“We spent some time with alumni who now live in Texas, like Lisa Brooks ’85, whose son, Dash, was on the trip, and Jesse Yoburn ’02 and got to hear about their F&M experiences while snacking on cookies and brownies they brought us,” Lifshutz said. “Later that same day, we visited Austin, which is a fun city and very different from Lancaster. It was nice to spend some time getting to know the group a little better off a job site.”

Lifshutz and Machin both previously participated in the January 2012 trip to Sawyerville, Alabama and recommended the experience to anyone interested.

“We got to meet many different F&M students and travel all over the country, while still volunteering. We learned about people who were affected by the disaster and that makes it feel much more real and personal,” Lifshutz said.

“There are so many opportunities to learn all the different skills that go into building or repairing a home, which I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

“I joined CRA as a freshman on their January 2012 trip to Alabama,” Machin said. “I was inspired to participate in CRA after working with Habitat for Humanity during Putting It Together (PIT) week. I would absolutely recommend this experience to anyone with a passion for making a difference in people’s lives. It’s one thing to hear about a disaster on the news, but actually being in the middle of it is life changing. You can’t escape the reality of this kind of destruction when you’re covered in soot ashes from the burnt remains of someone’s home. The work we do is really important, because it’s more than just manual labor. We’re really helping these people pick up the pieces of their lives and start over.”

The students also experienced firsthand how much their assistance helped some of the Bastrop residences. Machin explained that on the trip on one of the days that it was raining, some of the students and Gulati met an older man named Ben who lost his home in a fire a month prior, and cleanup crews had to clear the ashes of his former possessions and look for scrap metal that could be saved.

“As we were working, Ben told us that he was a film fanatic, and before the fire, he had owned over 700 DVDs and 400 VHS [tapes],” Machin said. “I could see the molten remains of their cases, melted together into unnatural rows and covered with a thick layer of soggy ashes. This sight compelled me to find at least one possession of his that wasn’t burned beyond destruction, so I pried open a few dressers and uncovered a pair of aviator sunglasses and a photograph of two dogs. When I gave these to Ben, I could see a glimmer of hope in his eyes. This was more rewarding to me than any of the actual construction I had done.”

Many of the students said they wished to go on future CRA trips.

“I want to join the spring break trip and I’m also looking forward to joining another Winter break trip next year,” said Yixu Chen ’16.

Students mentioned they felt like this was an opportunity to truly make a difference.

“It’s an opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives and offer hope for the future,” Lifshutz said. “I am from Brooklyn, New York, and after Hurricane Sandy I find it inspiring to know strangers are volunteering their time to do the same for me.”

Machin explained she was really excited for future trips with CRA.

“I’m definitely going on each annual CRA trip while I’m a student at F&M, and hopefully as an alum in the future!” Machin said. “In addition, CRA is organizing a mini-trip over spring break to Staten Island to assist with the devastation from Hurricane Sandy. This trip will take place March 9 through March 12, and we’re excited to be teaming up with the Klehr Center.”

Questions? Email Shira at

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