The Worst of Times Brings Out the Best in People
By Michael A. MacDowell — President, Misericordia University
Throughout our rich history, Northeastern Pennsylvania residents have had more than their share of obstacles and tragedies to overcome. Whether it was the historic flood of 1936 or the abrupt end of the anthracite industry in 1959, the region has persevered and in many instances thrived.
It’s our spirit and sense of community that separates our small, tight-knit communities from others across the country. When my wife, Tina, and I arrived in the Wyoming Valley in 1998, we heard stories of “The Great Flood.” We soon learned that residents were not talking about the Book of Genesis, but rather of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. During the summer, Misericordia University’s Alumnae Hall became a surrogate site for Nesbitt Hospital, where 52 babies were born.
Memories like that die hard, so the flood of 2011 brings back vivid and disturbing memories for many people. For those in Bloomsburg, Mocanaqua, Pittston, Plains, Plymouth Township, Shickshinny and West Pittston, it was déjà vu. For other areas, such as Harveys Lake, Noxen and Tunkhannock, the word flood now has a real and vibrant meaning.
Yet in the 39 years since the flood of 1972 impacted the region, the stories of devastation have been mitigated by tales of bravery, hard work and the determination to rebuild this beautiful part of the state. Above all, the stories of people and institutions extending help and compassion to those directly impacted by the flood have been long lasting.
It is clear that since 1972, the characteristics of the valley with a heart have not changed. Once again, people on high ground opened their doors and hearts to those evacuated from the river communities. Once again, people reached out to help those in need. And once again, acquaintances became good friends and good friends became surrogate families.
Like many other large institutions, such as the Dallas and Lake-Lehman school districts, Misericordia University became an evacuation site for those in the low-lying areas. I was thoroughly impressed by the willingness of our faculty, staff and particularly students to receive our unexpected guests and make them feel as though our home was their home.
That feeling was multiplied in many private homes and other institutions throughout our area. Those who were able to help others did so without a second thought, even if their own lives were endangered. Many others heeded the call for sandbag crews along the Susquehanna and Lackawanna rivers and in other strategic locations. Others worked throughout the night to help those in Brookside fend off the flood waters and then pitched in to help residents recover what was left of their homes. Emergency responders and agencies sprang into action to save what they could and to comfort those in need.
The spirit of service to others was exemplified throughout the region. When the call was issued Sept. 8 for volunteers, more than 400 members of the Misericordia campus community assembled in our Metz Dining Hall to wait for their assignments. Nursing and social work students were dispatched to the Meadows Nursing Home below campus to help the elderly. In small but meaningful ways, students at Misericordia also volunteered to look after the pets of those displaced by the flooding. One evacuee said her dog “had never had so much attention and she loves it.”
The volunteerism did not end on our college campuses either, as collegians from King’s, Misericordia and Wilkes fanned out throughout the region. Misericordia students, for example, helped the parents, teachers and students of Holy Rosary Grade School in Duryea relocate to the former St. Mary’s School in Avoca so students could resume classes in a timely fashion. Forty-one members of the Misericordia men’s lacrosse team ventured into Exeter and West Pittston on a recent Saturday to help three families make sense of their reclamation efforts. In Noxen, teams of MU students have been working in the community, particularly at the United Methodist Church.
It was refreshing to see our volunteers when they returned to campus. The filth of the flood sites stained their clothes, but their facial expressions and comments exhibited a true sense of satisfaction from a rewarding day of volunteering. It will take time for our neighbors and communities to rebound completely, but they no doubt should know that additional assistance is but a mere phone call away.
“It’s overwhelming to see the response of people we don’t even know,’’ Holy Rosary kindergarten teacher Nancy Rafferty commented during the school’s relocation efforts. “It’s comforting to know that people care and they are there for you. The support has been great.’’
Tales of extraordinary heroism and stories of people helping friends, families, neighbors and even strangers, collectively demonstrate that this valley’s heart still beats strong. In the weeks and months ahead, other stories of unselfish service will no doubt materialize. Those who helped in so many ways deserve our deepest appreciation. They also deserve the acknowledgement that they and many others are the reason that this place deserves the moniker “the valley with a heart.”
Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., which has through the years hosted numerous evacuees during high-water events and flooding.