Spring break in NYC

New Yorkers grateful for Bluffton students' help

BLUFFTON, Ohio — In New York City for spring break, 23 students representing the Bluffton University group SERVE saw Ground Zero, Times Square and other city landmarks.

But beyond that, during five days of service to poor and homeless New Yorkers, and aid to Hurricane Sandy victims in a Brooklyn neighborhood, "I think we saw a lot of gratefulness," said the group's president, Abbey Graber, a Bluffton junior from Archbold, Ohio.

Four months after Sandy struck, "some people were still out of power and not in their houses" in Red Hook, Brooklyn, noted Owen Lugibihl, a first-year student from Pandora, Ohio. But many residents of the hard-hit neighborhood still seemed appreciative of the cleanup work that has been done, he added.

Most of the debris left by the storm in Red Hook has been removed, putting it ahead of other areas in the recovery effort, said Jordan McFarland, a junior and the vice president of SERVE. His relief work included cleaning up a backyard, while Lugibihl helped take out a bathroom wall in a damaged home, both as part of Bluffton group projects.

Among Graber's group's activities was a visit to the Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen "to see how people and meals are still being served," she said.

Accompanied by university staff members Karen Brandt and Elizabeth Vaccaro and housed in a Manhattan church, the students also assisted in soup kitchens and food pantries in Brooklyn and the Bronx. At one, St. John's Bread & Life, McFarland said he and Lugibihl handed out about 200 meals. Most of the soup kitchen visitors he served expressed gratitude, especially those who appeared to have less, added McFarland, from New Carlisle, Ohio.

In a Manhattan park, the Bluffton contingent participated as a whole in the Good Samaritan Project, which entailed distribution of food as well. Students gave away packed lunches, and some of their encounters turned into conversations, Graber said.

She and McFarland told how Scott Misamore, a senior from Findlay, Ohio, talked to a homeless, diabetic man who wasn't looking for food but for assistance to walk somewhere to get help for his low blood sugar. Misamore stayed with the man for 20 minutes or so until police, then emergency personnel, arrived to assist, they said.

The students, who worked with an organization called Mission NYC, also attended a prayer meeting at the Brooklyn Tabernacle; worship and a Bible study in a Manhattan church; and chapel services for the homeless, also in Manhattan. In addition, on consecutive days, they staffed "mobile prayer centers" on street corners in the two city boroughs.

At the prayer centers, they set up a table and offered to pray with passers-by or give them translations of the Gospel of John, McFarland explained. Some people accepted the offer, saying they appreciated what the students were doing, he said. Pointing out that initiating such an exchange was a new experience, he noted that "it definitely offered a different perspective."

Funded with the help of Bluffton's Student Senate and its campus ministries office, the trip provided "a good balance" between trying to make a difference for others and exploring New York City, McFarland said.

He, Graber and Lugibihl were among the students who had never been to the city. Describing the group's visit to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial as "surreal," he said "just seeing the amount of names there was an eye-opener." And witnessing other visitors finding a relative's name inscribed in one of the memorial's bronze panels "made it a lot more real," said Graber.

For her, she said, watching students from different backgrounds come together for a common purpose is the most satisfying part of SERVE trips. "It was fun how we became one big family" in New York, she added, saying she likes the idea "of serving God through serving people."