Instead of heading to my grandparents’ house in Florida or driving across the country on I-70 to the nation’s capital this Spring Break, I decided to spend a couple days in Oakville, IA.
Oakville isn’t a place anyone would go to for a fun getaway, nor is it an ideal vacation spot. The closest restaurant is a good 10 miles away and you need to drive over half-an-hour to get to the nearest movie theater.
No, Oakville isn’t a very relaxing place.
On June 14, 2008, the levee that was supposed to protect Oakville from the rising Iowa River broke, covering the town in six feet of water. After the flood, only 160 of the 439 Oakville residents returned to their devastated homes.
Every week except for two since the flood, volunteers have set up camp in the town’s United Methodist Church. Though the amenities weren’t quite those of a five-star hotel, my group of 15 people from the Youth Volunteer Corps. of Greater Kansas City were happy to have some quality air mattresses to sleep on after a full day’s work.
We arrived in Oakville a little after midnight on Friday night, but we woke up bright and early on Saturday.
Saturday was an interesting day because a photographer from the USA Today followed our group around all day for a story that was published on Monday. We painted the entire inside of a house, put up ceiling fans in another and removed debris from a damaged home.
That evening, we were invited to the town’s community building for a taco dinner. The shells were fried by the Oakville volunteer firemen in the adjacent fire station, a truly small-town touch.
On Sunday, we gutted a house. Gutting a house involves tearing down the dry wall and rip out the insulation. We had to wear masks because the insulation was moldy from the flood and if we hadn’t worn goggles, I would have lost one or both of my eyes. Smashing a crow bar into a wall was fun for the first couple swings, but then every swing turned into a sharp pain that made it feel like the joints in my hands had no cartilage. The masks made it hard to breathe and it was the hardest work we did all weekend. Even so, I enjoyed it quite a bit because, really, when do you ever get to tear up a house without anyone yelling at you?
Monday was spent cleaning up the yard of the town’s lone criminal, who is now spending 15 years in prison for an undisclosed offense. From the things we picked up, we had a pretty good idea of why he was in jail.
The people who came back to Oakville want to have their town back. Originally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wanted Oakville to be razed and turned back into the open land it used to be before it became a railroad stop in the late 1800s.
Volunteer coordinator Tonya Lanz and town everyman Dale Whitaker are the two people to thank for the progress that has been made in Oakville. Everyday, Tonya balances organizing the town’s rebuilding with the raising of her seven children. Dale could be a story by himself. He claims he’s the town’s only retired man and, even so, not only was he at nearly every site we worked at, but he was right in there working beside us. When a local’s fire became too smelly, the fire department was called. As one of the town’s surprisingly modern fire trucks pulled up to the scene, it was Dale who popped out and hosed it down. He may say he’s retired, but he’s one of the most active senior citizens I’ve ever met.
For me, this trip stressed the importance of togetherness. I’m not just talking about Oakville, either. I went on this trip with five chaperones, all under the age of 30, and nine middle and high school students, none of which came from the same school.
The 15 of us shared four showers in the church’s creepy basement which meant most of us were left with only cold water by the end of showering time. We never got enough sleep and spent a total of 12 hours cramped in a van together. Yet, instead of becoming irritated with each other, many of use became closer and can’t wait until the next YVC project we find each other at.
In the end, it was definitely worth it. It was far from the beaches of Florida or the monuments of D.C., but I wouldn’t have traded it for either of those places.
We experienced what it’s like to live in a small town. We met new friends. We made a difference.
Now it’s time for some much needed sleep.