Adventures in Service: Cleaning Up the Vermont Flood

There are a few basic ground rules to how I generally operate. First, I’m not what you’d call a manual laborer. At least, that’s not something that plays to my strengths. You need something organized? Some sort of tech problem ironed out? Someone to bounce ideas off of to come up with a solution to a tricky problem? I think I’ve got something to offer. You want someone to haul sand or mud around? I don’t think anyone would likely put me at the top of the list. (I suppose it depends who else is on the list, right? Would I fall in above or below PeeWee Herman? The jury’s still out.)

Second, I really don’t like getting dirty. Call me fastidious. Call me anal. A dirty Bryce is an uncomfortable Bryce. (Clutter doesn’t count as dirt, for those of you playing along at home.) I’m not someone who showers more than once a day, but if I get something on me, I want it off. Now.

Finally, I hate (hate) getting wet. Think of me like a mogwai, and we’ll be just fine.

So perhaps it would surprise some to hear that I spent my weekend down in Vermont, mucking out cellars, shoveling sand, and picking up water-logged trash in open fields. Under normal circumstances, I’d be surprised myself. However, back on July 10th, areas of Vermont saw extreme flooding. The kind of flooding you usually see on the news, somewhere far away from you. I thought how horrible that would be, and then promptly proceeded to do nothing else about it.

Until a call for help came from church leaders supervising the area. They’d already had a bunch of members working for weeks to try and alleviate some of the suffering the floods caused, but there was still tons of work to be done. Our stake (group of churches in the area) was challenged to put together a group to come down and pitch in for a weekend.

I immediately felt like I needed to go.

Not because I was strong armed into anything. Despite what you might read in some corners of the interwebs, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never done much in the way of strong arming, in my experience. No, we were asked and encouraged, in the form of a single message that was read across the pulpit in every congregation last Sunday. But I’ve always seen these kind of disasters happen half a country away from me. I’ve never really felt or thought I could do something to help other than to send a check to organizations in the area. Here at last was a chance to actually go and do something real. I didn’t want to miss it.

Denisa, Daniela, and I woke up at 5am on Saturday morning and headed off. (MC stayed with a friend. She’d debated going, but ultimately felt like she should stay home. A good call, it turned out, as she got sick while we were away, so it was much better for her to be warm and home.) We drove 3 hours to Montpelier, VT. Around 70 of us showed up, all told, and we were split into work groups to go around and tackle a number of projects that had been lined up for us ahead of time.

First up for us was cleaning up a community farm. It was around the size of a football field. Perhaps a bit larger. In happier times, the farm raised crops to donate to food banks or other people in need. The flood had put it all 8 feet underwater, killing all the crops. It had also washed in a bunch of trash from a neighboring dump, along with a good dose of raw sewage. A few homeless encampments had been on the site, as well. Most of the open fields were dry on the surface, but they were a muddy, sloshy mess underneath. We picked up trash and stacked wood that had been scattered all over. There was nothing about this that was glamorous. When they outlined what they needed help with, I thought we’d be able to work there for both days straight and still not get everything done. 40 of us showed up, and we finished all of it in around 5 hours, give or take. (I seriously underestimated how much 40 people can get done if they’re all focused on working.)

From there, we helped move some water for a Methodist church that was working on providing aid, and then we heard of a shoe store in downtown Barre that had mud in the basement. 20 of us went over there, only to discover that “mud in the basement” was an understatement. We got to work shoveling muck into buckets and passing the buckets up the basement stairs and out the back door. It took two and a half hours of absolutely filthy work, but we got them cleared out.

We drove down to a church-owned campground 45 minutes south and stayed there for the night. I’d planned on walking around and chatting with other people, but honestly I was so exhausted, I collapsed in a heap and went to sleep.

Sunday, we worked in smaller groups, tackling two main projects. The first was a simple basement muck out that seemed spotless to start with, in comparison to the shoe store. The second was ripping off a broken staircase and shoveling sand in to fill the hole it left, at the house of a woman right on a stream. The flood had deposited a ton of sand all over her yard, and we worked on clearing as much of it away as we could. (Sand is heavy, people. Did you know that?)

When we got back on Sunday evening, I was very grateful for a hot shower and clean sheets, and the fact that my basement was as dry as I’d left it. (It’s a crawlspace. “Dry” is a relative term.) It was hard, difficult work. I’m still aching all over from everything we did. But I’m very happy to have gone. I don’t remember the last time I did something that felt that needed and appreciated. I’ve done service projects in the local area, but there’s a huge difference between “raking up leaves at the local park” and the stuff we were doing down in Vermont. When we left, I knew how much work there was still to be done in the area. A big part of the job is finding it. Our group talked to a couple of people who just flat out refused any help at all. (Or in some cases, any help from our church, specifically.) I understand the desire to be self-sufficient, but having seen just how much work goes into cleaning up even a basic flooded basement, I would encourage anyone to just swallow their pride and accept the help.

And there was plenty of help being offered. Communities and other churches all had projects of their own going, three weeks on. Businesses were donating lunches to volunteers. Many people waved and thanked us as they drove or walked by. It was very refreshing to see (for the most part) people put aside any differences they might have for a while, and focus on just helping.

In any case, it was an experience I’ll never forget, and I’m grateful for the kick in the pants it took for me to realize I could actually drive down and do something.

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