Twenty six Iowa law students, a friend of a student and one dean donated a total of more than 450 work hours last week in Cedar Rapids’ Time Check neighborhood, the residential area hardest hit by last summer’s record flood of the Cedar River. “We felt like we made a difference, but there is still so much devastation,” Josh Mandelbaum, 3L and one of the leads, said at the end of the week. Lesley Shafer, 2L, who was displaced from her internship at the Linn County Attorney’s Office last summer and who then joined the staff of the Volunteer Recovery Center (VRC), was invaluable as a liaison with the VRC and in organizing our work. The trip was also organized by Rob Sand (2L) and Seth Shannon (3L). Students raised over $1000 toward the costs of tools, food, and mileage to and from Cedar Rapids each day.
Monday through Friday, the day’s work crew met at the law school at 7:30 for bagels and car pooling. As the cars pulled off route 380 into downtown Cedar Rapids, it was abundantly clear how block upon block of houses are still uninhabited. After getting the work assignment from the Volunteer Reception Center staff, the lead Mike, an Americorps/Vista staffer, took the crews to one of three houses that the law school worked on during the week. Drywalling was the main task at hand, though at one house finish work — woodworking, tiling and hanging doors –was what was needed. Some of the student workers had a quick drywalling tutorial to prepare for spring break on Saturday, March 7, when a crew of 13 went to Palo, Iowa, which was totally flooded last summer, and worked on two houses.
The students had the chance to meet and talk with the some of the homeowners who stopped by to view the progress. The satisfaction the students got with helping out, however, was balanced against getting a sense of the frustration for the owners, caused by the hassle of getting federal and state aid, satisfying layer upon layer of zoning and other regulations, and the slow pace of the work. And since rebuilding appears to be occuring primarily in owner-occupied homes, most if not all the houses on block after block seem untouched. Landlords are not eligible for some of the aid, so many low-income renters lost housing.
The law students quickly gained the respect of the crew leaders for how hard they worked and how quickly they caught on to the tasks at hand. Each day the crews broke for lunch, and travelled either to the Salvation Army or the Echo Hill Presbyterian Church to join with homeless and the poor for the free lunch provided weekdays. On Wednesday after work was done, the crew enjoyed the marvelous hospitality at the Cedar Rapids home of Carroll Reasoner, Interim General Counsel and Vice President at the UI, and her husband Tom Peffer, a partner at the Cedar Rapids law firm, Shuttleworth Ingersoll. (Carroll and Tom are also alums of the law school and the parents of law students Mike and Bill Peffer). Over plentiful food and refreshments, the group enjoyed engaging conversation and retired to the basement to play pool, ping pong, shuffleboard and other games.
The spring break trip followed four Saturdays last fall mucking and gutting houses in CR. Although only one more day of Cedar Rapids work is planned this academic year, on Saturday March 28, preliminary plans are in the works to carry over into next academic year. The organizers are exploring how law students, in addition to doing physical labor, can help homeowners navigate the bureaucratic morass of getting aid and appealing denials. Law students interested in organizing or volunteering should write to email@example.com.