Miami University Middletown student Janart Addo works with other classmate volunteers last week in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to rebuild a burned down home. Addo, who is an English-learning freshmen from Ghana, understood the homeowners pain as she has twice lost her west African home to fire. CONTRIBUTED

A different spring break: Helping Gatlinburg rise from historic fires

The Ghana-born student was among nearly a dozen students who volunteered for a first-time, alternative spring break program for students in the regional campus’ English Language Center (ELC).

Their mission: Help a Gatlinburg-area family rebuild their home destroyed in the historic wild fires that swept through popular mountain-community tourist area last fall destroying dozens of homes and businesses.

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It was a philanthropic cause close to the 20-year-old Addo’s heart.

Growing up in the West African nation she and her family had twice lost their homes to fire.

“It is very painful and it was one of the main reasons I wanted to go and help,” said Addo. “I can understand what they (Gatlinburg residents) are feeling and when it happened to me, we didn’t have a lot of people to help us.”

The new spring break program, said Crystal Ford, coordinator of Service Learning and Volunteerism for Miami University Regionals, was designed to expose students to volunteer opportunities.

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“When an opportunity arose to help combat the recent fire devastation with motivated hands and hearts, I knew it was a chance to give back to an area rich in culture, heritage, and history. It was also an opportunity to educate our students through service and exploration,” said Ford.

Ford said the house will be given to a family who lost their home and belongings in the November fires, which killed 12 and destroyed or damaged more than 2,000 homes and businesses and cost more than $800 million in damages.

She said the newly built house will be provided to them, rent free, and they will be able to move in by May 1.

Jerry Martin, regional director of the English Language Center for Miami University Regionals, said beyond the important volunteer lessons learned during the alternative spring break are also practical, instructional ones.

“This type of service learning is a fantastic opportunity for our international students to apply the language skills they work so hard on in the classroom while giving back to the community. Volunteering and service-learning projects are an integral part of our curriculum and the students’ feedback from these experiences is overwhelmingly positive,” said Martin.

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“One important cultural value the international students took away from the experience in Gatlinburg is that a group of people representing various nationalities, cultures, and languages can come together as one team to accomplish a big project such as building a home for a family who has been displaced as a result of the tragic fires last year,” said Martin. “The students also reflected on the strength and power of the Gatlinburg community in rebuilding and moving forward after the fires.”

Addo, who plans to major in international relations, said the positives of lending a hand were special to all those involved.

The community service work, said Addo, helped her not only “enhance my language learning resources but this kind of work makes you a better human being.”

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