WEST LIBERTY - Last March, a series of tornadoes that left homes destroyed and lives lost ripped through parts of the United States, including a small town with a familiar name - West Liberty, Ky.
At the time, West Liberty University President Robin Capehart and Jeff Knierim, the university's vice president for community engagement, were in Charleston for a basketball tournament. They said people there came up to them and gave their condolences for the disaster that occurred in a town called West Liberty.
"When we found out it was Kentucky, not West Virginia, we began to think" of how we could help," Knierim recalled. "It just resonated that these people were really suffering greatly. A small town similar to ours had suffered a lot of damage."
West Liberty University students Abbey Boram of Wheeling and Luke Tacosik of Morristown stand with Vice President for Community Engagement Jeff Knierim. Students are working to raise money for their fall service trip, Oct. 25-28, to West Liberty, Ky., their “sister” town, which is still recovering from the devastation of a tornado last year.
The next step was obvious. Two weeks later, a group of 44 university students and staff members made the trip to Kentucky to aid their adopted "sister city" in the aftermath of the storm.
"Disasters happen all over the place," Knierim said. "You feel bad, but when it has that connection, something you can identify with, that really hits home. People felt like 'Let's do this.'"
Abbey Boram, a sophomore at WLU, was one of the students to help with the clean-up efforts. Boram said while she had seen the damage floods can create, she was "shocked" to witness the destruction of a tornado's unforgiving path.
"You could see the path the tornado took," Boram said. "It knocked down trees and ripped apart houses. Some houses would have minor damage and some buildings, there wasn't anything salvageable."
Working with a long-term recovery committee of social service agencies and churches, the local student crew assisted with immediate clean-up, during which time they collected a "tremendous amount" of debris and cutting down damaged trees. Knierim recalled collecting separate piles of metal, wood and trash in front of houses with collapsed roofs.
"People were grateful for anyone to help," Boram said. "They were put in a position where they didn't have any idea of what to do, so any help was appreciated."
Nearly eight months later, however, much destruction still remains in the fellow Appalachian town.
Knierim said the university developed a good relationship with West Liberty, Ky. during the clean-up and remained in contact with the long-term recovery committee over the summer months. Knowing there was still a long way to go in terms of recovery, they scheduled a second trip for this week.
"A disaster of this magnitude, there's a lot to recover. It can takes years," Knierim said. "You cannot comprehend the destruction just from pictures or television.
"Basically, the town was devastated - buildings crumbled. On one side of the street, buildings would be untouched, and the other side would be a pile of rubble."
This time around, students and staff will be working to paint newly built homes during their visit, as well as continuing efforts to collect debris and clear tree damage. The students will be housed at Grace Baptist Church, but food costs still remain.
In an effort to defray the cost of meals, the students have been selling candy and pepperoni rolls on campus. There also will be a celebrity server night at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery on National Road, set for Tuesday, to raise funds for the trip.
According to Knierim, even with their best efforts to aid the town's recovery, the volunteers who saw the destruction firsthand remain changed by the experience.
Boram said that the scenes she witnessed inspired her to once again return to the Kentucky town.
"It was very perspective-changing - it was life-changing, in a sense," she said. "In a way I felt not obligated, but connected to the town. I wanted to go back and help again."