During spring break, most college kids escape school and work for a simpler life at the beach. But sometimes, groups of teenagers and 20-somethings venture away from the sand and into the dirt.
One Oklahoma group has decided to use those students to revitalize areas of Moore affected by the May 20 tornado.
Spending your spring break planting trees in a muddy park thousands of miles from your home may not sound like the most relaxing and rewarding way to spend a week. 18-year-old Tyler Lawson from Connecticut realizes he’s working a lot harder than many of his classmates.
“I have friends in Costa Rica. I have friends in Florida. I have a lot of friends out somewhere partying in the beach,” Lawson said.
Lawson chose to spend his week-long vacation working in Moore with a group from his school, the University of Hartford. To him, partying on the beach wasn’t nearly as appealing as helping rebuild a community.
“I feel like I get a lot more out of this, and I'll form a lot more great memories that I won't lose during a lifetime,” Lawson said.
The students spent last week volunteering with Serve Moore, a group started by local pastors the night of the city’s devastating tornado last May.
Chris Fox is one of the founders of the group. He says rebuilding houses is great, but there’s more to restoring the hard-hit town.
“There were thousands of people affected by the tornado who did not lose their home or who did not sustain damage. And I don't want to play down any damage of any affectedness whatsoever, but the fact of the matter is a whole community hurts, and it takes healing for a whole community,” Fox said.
Fox says more than 40,000 people from across the country, and even around the world, have come to help Moore heal since last May.
He and his fellow pastors saw an opportunity to impact change on a larger scale, so they started cleaning up debris, repainting fire hydrants and painting house numbers on neighborhood curbs.
And volunteers keep coming. Last week, more than 200 college students showed up to pitch in. Maeve Shea is the director for an alternative spring break group from the University of Connecticut.
“It's hard with volunteering. You want to get there right away, but they need really well trained volunteers firsthand, so coming a year later is the best we can do, and we're really happy to be here,” Shea said.
Her group was one of the teams planting thousands of saplings at Little River Park in Moore. Before the storm, the park was practically a forest. But now?
“There's a few pretty barren trees, but otherwise, it's completely empty, and it's so flattened,” Shea said.
She says it’s easy to understand the value in planting trees. She sees this park as a familiar place where residents can return, regardless of whether their homes were lost.
“This is really just one of the final scars on Moore. So knowing that with these trees gone, people can't relax and hangout, it seems like the right thing to do. It seems like, for a lot of it, it's about community pride. And it's about rebuilding in different ways, so this is a visual aid,” Shea said.
Little River Park remains closed, and it still has a long way to go until it’s fully restored. But Serve Moore’s Chris Fox hopes these trees will be a big step forward.
“We would love to wrap up all the tornado stuff. We're so looking forward to that as much as any homeowner or the community is. We want to put the tornado behind us, and those projects, we'd like to call them finished,” Fox said.
He says he knows future tragedies are inevitable. But he hopes Serve Moore can continue to revive the city regardless of the situations ahead.