Paying it forward

// Student from Tacoma spends spring break on Hurricane Sandy relief

While some college students spend their spring break socializing with friends, a young man from Tacoma spent his helping people recover from a major natural disaster.

Luan Nguyen-Tran grew up in Tacoma and graduated from Foss High School in 2011. He is a student at the University of Redlands in Southern California. The school requires students to perform a certain number of hours in community service. Nguyen-Tran met this requirement during his freshman year, but continues to volunteer his time.

Redlands students have traveled to various places to lend a hand, including the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast in late October, school officials saw another chance to help. Plans were made to send students to assist Habitat for Humanity during spring break.

Nguyen-Tran saw this as a more appealing option than hitting the beach in Mexico with other college students. “For spring break I wanted to do something with meaning,” he remarked. His birthday was in March. His parents offered to pay for his travel expenses to go back east as a birthday present.

Nguyen-Tran and about 20 other Redlands students, along with a few professors, traveled to Breezy Point, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. They slept on cots at Christ Community Church. Like many structures in the region, the church suffered damage during the storm. It still does not have running water, so the students used portable toilets and brushed their teeth with bottled water. The line on the walls marking how high the floodwaters went was between four and five feet high.

There were many damaged houses, especially along the waterfront. Some were laying on their sides, testimony to the intensity of the hurricane winds. “It was crazy,” Nguyen-Tran said.

The students cleaned out homes that could be saved, in some cases removing flooring that became moldy and ruined. They cleared alleys of sand and delivered sheetrock to houses that were being renovated by Habitat for Humanity. “It was a smaller piece to the bigger picture,” he said of their efforts. “There is still a lot of work to be done.”

One student answered phones in the church office. “That may not seem like a lot, but we all did our part to make Breezy Point a better place.”

In one back yard they cleared, they found personal belongings such as a teddy bear, wedding dress and photo albums with pictures from weddings and other special occasions. The students packed these up so they could be returned to their owners. “Those things were meaningful,” Nguyen-Tran observed. “After a hurricane, for some people that is all they have left.”

It made him think of the scrapbooks his mother compiled of photos from his childhood. “I could not imagine having to dig for those in the dirt.”

Nguyen-Tran looks forward to doing similar volunteer work in the future. “The experience was unforgettable,” he said. “It is something I would like to do again.”

Nguyen-Tran recently decided to major in sociology, with a minor in business. After finishing college he would like to land a job as a high school teacher, preferably in Washington. Eventually he would like to become a school administrator or student government advisor.

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