By Ed Brennen
Senior business administration major Emily Bellino remembers watching news coverage of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, when the Houston area was devastated by a year’s worth of rain – 52 inches – in less than a week.
Standing in one of the city’s 185,000 flood-damaged homes last month, hammer in hand, Bellino was stunned by how much rebuilding still needs to be done.
“I knew about the tragic impact Hurricane Harvey had on the city, but I didn’t realize that people were still dealing with hardships today,” says Bellino, one of 13 UMass Lowell students who spent a week in Houston during winter break volunteering with All Hands and Hearts, a Massachusetts-based disaster relief nonprofit.
“When we arrived on the worksite, I was shocked to see that the home was still in such terrible condition,” says Bellino, whose concentrations are in marketing and management and who is also a member of the River Hawks women’s lacrosse team. “All of the family’s personal items were in one room. The house had been completely flooded by the storm.”
The students were there as part of Organizational Behavior in Action, an interdisciplinary, three-credit directed study course led by Olga Tines, an assistant teaching professor of management in the Manning School of Business.
In addition to helping All Hands and Hearts rebuild a single-family home by laying flooring, hanging drywall and painting, students spent the week analyzing the structure of the volunteer organization through observations and interviews with site leaders.
“They’re a very organic and highly adaptable organization, which is why I like students to see it because it’s totally different than what we see in for-profit firms,” says Tines, who requires students to write a 15- to 20-page paper on their embedded research findings.
Students also spent a day talking to people in the community for context on how they were impacted by the disaster.
“One of the hardest parts of the experience was when we talked to the locals and saw how many people are in need of help, and knowing that we couldn’t help all of them,” says Andrea Patino, a junior business administration major with concentrations in finance and international business. “But it was an amazing feeling of accomplishment knowing that we had the chance to help and positively impact people’s lives.”
While 10 of the 13 participants were from the Manning School – Andrew Dickinson, Emily Lara, Patrick O’Connell, Lucy Smith, Kayla Kenny, Allison Thornell, Braulio Lopez, Meghan McCormack, Patino and Bellino – the course expanded this year to all majors and included engineering students Abdulla and Ahmad Aljeboure and health science student Nicole Mahogany.
Linda Barrington, coordinator of service learning in the Francis College of Engineering, also took part in the trip for the first time. Barrington, who started an alternative spring break service club several years ago, hopes to see more engineering students participate in Tines’ course in the future. Students can also highlight the trip on their transcript through the River Hawk Experience Distinction (RHED) program, as it is pre-approved for Community Engagement.
This was Tines’ fourth trip with students to areas recovering from natural disasters since 2015. Past trips were to Coney Island, N.Y., Andrews, S.C., and Baton Rouge, La. All Hands and Hearts provides communal housing and meals, while students must cover their travel expenses.
“Olga Tines has been great, and we’re looking forward to having other teams of UMass Lowell students join us,” David Campbell, co-founder and chairman of All Hands and Hearts, said during a recent visit to campus, when he spoke to students about the impact of disaster relief work.
Hurricane Harvey killed more than 80 people and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, making it the second-most-costly natural disaster in U.S. history, behind only Hurricane Katrina.
“This country goes through a lot of issues in terms of weather and destruction of properties,” Tines says. “The intent is to get our students out to the places that are underserved, neglected and forgotten about to some degree.”
After working with site supervisors all week to learn about construction and safety, Bellino says she returned home a more humble and patient person.
“If we did anything wrong, they taught us how to fix the problem rather than getting frustrated with us and doing it themselves,” she says. “They were willing to teach us and were just as excited and as proud as we were when we finished the job.”
Lopez, a junior business administration major with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship, says the hardest part of the course was saying goodbye to everyone at the end of the week.
“The most important thing I learned,” Lopez says, “is that all it takes are a bunch of good-intentioned people to make a difference, no matter how big or small.”