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CONWAY -- When tornadoes ravaged parts of Vilonia and Mayflower on April 27, 2014, University of Central Arkansas students, faculty and staff knew they wanted to help.

Almost five years later, the volunteer effort -- called Bear Boots on the Ground -- has become increasingly active, helping residents over the years in Arkansas, Texas, New Orleans and, most recently, Florida. Future efforts will include trips to Memphis and Puerto Rico this year.

The effort began simply in 2014 with the university sending "busloads of students, faculty and staff to Mayflower, Vilonia and surrounding communities to do disaster relief work," recalled Wendy Holbrook, assistant vice president for student engagement, leadership and service.

"We continued sending UCA groups in Faulkner County for each Friday throughout the summer. ... Altogether, we had 575 volunteers who worked for 15 days and put in 2,690 hours of service doing tornado cleanup and helping to build homes," Holbrook said.

The program became less active for a time. But when a flood struck Pocahontas in northeast Arkansas in May 2017, the effort resurged and volunteers spent two days helping out there. Since then, the work has been steady.

In December, almost 50 students and four chaperones traveled by charter bus to Panama City, Fla., to help with the cleanup after Hurricane Michael struck that area in October. UCA partnered with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention on this trip and a previous one to Texas.

Audrey Scaife, a UCA sophomore from Conway, was among the volunteers who worked in Florida.

"I just wanted to be a part of something that could help someone else," Scaife said Friday.

Among the most rewarding work she did there was removing toppled trees and other storm debris from a cemetery so that relatives and others could once again visit loved ones' graves and make any needed repairs, Scaife said.


Scaife also recalled helping clear storm debris from the yard and the storm-damaged home of a former UCA library employee, Rosalie Lovelace. Lovelace and her husband, Harvey, had moved to the Panama City suburb of Lynn Haven, Fla., after she retired in 2016.

"Seven of us got to go and cut their [damaged] trees down and rake their yard," Scaife said. "They are amazing people. ... [It] brought so much joy to their hearts that we were there. ... It was amazing because they just have high spirits" but were tired from the cleanup work.

Before Scaife left for Florida, her father told her, "'Go make a difference,'" and "'Be that light for someone else.'"

"Yes, sir, you got it," she replied.

Rosalie Lovelace said the volunteers did "a phenomenal job" on her property.

"They got a workout," she said. "Not one of those young adults made one complaint. It was just overwhelming to feel so loved."

The Lovelaces had helped with Bear Boots on the Ground when the volunteers went to Mayflower and Vilonia in 2014. "It was nice to be on the receiving end" this time, Rosalie Lovelace said.

Other volunteer efforts have included trips to storm-damaged Vidor, Texas, and to New Orleans, where residents are still dealing with Hurricane Katrina devastation from 2005.

Seventy-five students and staff members traveled to Vidor for three days in October 2017 to help out after Hurricane Harvey. The team worked a collective 1,500 hours at at least 35 homes. Holbrook estimated the volunteer work's financial value at $29,490. Also last fall, 10 students and one staff member volunteered with Apple Seeds of Northwest Arkansas, a garden-based educational organization in Fayetteville.

Holbrook was one of the chaperones who went on the Texas mission.

"The students and I were overwhelmed with the amount of devastation and loss. We all saw the images on the news, but it was a very different experience to see the destruction in person," she recalled. "We held the remnants of people's lives in our hands and did our best to salvage what we could. We were prepared to be physically exhausted. However, we were surprised by the degree of emotional fatigue and grief we felt for the families."

During spring break last year, UCA sent 53 students and staff members to New Orleans.

"In partnership with Camp Restore, we worked with several nonprofits to complete service projects across the city. For one project, students planted 800 saplings in the 9th ward," Holbrook said in an email interview. "This was to combat the lasting damage of Hurricane Katrina."


UCA's Division of Student Services and the Student Government Association have funded the trips, Holbrook said. Community members at UCA and in Conway have also donated funding. Still, the students must pay a registration fee -- $60 for the Florida trip -- to cover travel, lodging and most meals.

"We are able to do this because of our partnership with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention," Holbrook said.

Scaife said she and other volunteers felt as if it was "God's will to go" on the trip and "to be able to make a difference."

In March, Bear Boots will travel to Memphis to help clean up along the Mississippi River and learn about river conservation. That same month, another Bear Boots trip is planned to Puerto Rico to help with restoration in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Holbrook has not forgotten cleaning out a little boy's room in Texas.

"There was a photo of him in his basketball uniform with his team. He looked to be about 7 years old and he had the brightest smile," she said. "It was heartbreaking to throw out his toys, LeBron James posters, and even his LeBron James jersey. I often wonder if he and his family are OK. I will never forget his face."

State Desk on 01/07/2019

Print Headline: UCA's aid crew a help in disasters; ’14 twister-born group still going

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