PINEWOOD SPRINGS, Colo . — Instead of partying away spring break on a beach somewhere, 48 LSU students and 10 adults mucked out homes and cleared tons of debris from a mountain creek here clogged by last year’s catastrophic floods.
The group was part of a Baptist Collegiate Ministry mission trip. Members spent time dealing with the aftermath of the fall storm that dumped more than 20 inches of rain into the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The resulting flooding killed eight residents, washed out mountain roads and bridges, caused $1 billion in property damage and forced the evacuation of 11,000 residents in a half-dozen counties.
Steve Masters, Baptist Collegiate Ministry director, said the damage was worse than he expected and eye-opening for the students.
“I think the students realized the importance of serving God and serving others,” Masters said. “Trips like this help in four ways: to help students serve the Lord, to serve others, to develop close relationships with each other when they work together, and they get motivated to serve the Lord and do things for others when they get back. That is why we do these mission trips.”
The high-altitude work at about 20 projects along the Little Thompson Creek from Estes Park to Pinewood Springs to near Berthoud was exhausting, but the scenery was exhilarating, and the residents were thankful for the help.
“It’s been a struggle to smile for a long time,” said Jeff Sherman, 59, as he watched a dozen students of several denominations gather limbs, branches and other forest debris into large piles. They wrestled a mangled concrete mixer out of the creek bed, 50 yards from where it once stood in his shop, which was erased by the flooding.
“It’s fantastic that groups like this can come up here and assist us,” Sherman said, slightly smiling. “I appreciate it, and my family appreciates it very much.”
Sherman, his wife and two college-age daughters have only recently returned to their home in tiny Pinewood Springs after being evacuated by a National Guard helicopter in the fall.
Their home, which Sherman built 28 years ago, was flooded, and their 1½-acre yard filled with ornamental trees and an underground thermal-heating system is now a rock-strewn gully. The flooding clogged a nearby bridge with debris and it became a dam rerouting a 10-foot wall of water toward their house.
“The sound was deafening. It was like Niagara Falls,” Sherman said. “You could hear the trees break like toothpicks about every 10 seconds.”
“We were in shock for about two months,” he said. “It’s a different life now. We feel like we’re starting over again.”
Down along the creek, Reeny Sittichot and Lizzie Hutchinson, both 19-year-old LSU freshmen, were shoveling mud from a small ditch so water being pumped out of Sherman’s basement could evacuate faster.
“I have a compassion to help others,” Sittichot said.
“The Lord put this on my heart,” Hutchinson added. “That’s why I’m here.”
Several miles upstream from Pinewood Springs in the scenic town of Estes Park, LSU freshman Garret Denver Goudeau, 18, of Denham Springs, along with a team of other students, donned masks and haz-mat suits and crawled under the home of an elderly woman to scoop 6 inches of silt out of the crawl space.
“She was very thankful,” Goudeau said. “It was kinda fun, actually, getting in there and getting dirty. The work has been hard but fun as well.”
Several miles downstream near Berthoud, half the LSU students stayed in unheated cabins, where nighttime temperatures dipped to 20 degrees, at the Parrish Ranch and Campground. They laid new flooring in the flood-damaged dining hall and cut up and removed downed trees with a tractor.
LSU senior Isaiah Woodson, 23, a chemical engineering major from Richmond, Va., helped lay the new flooring.
“I’m learning something new by doing this and meeting some awesome people,” Woodson said. “This was definitely life-changing. Rather than going to a beach for spring break, we’re helping people out.”
Ranch owner Terry Parrish, 66, said the creek has flooded many times, “but never like this.”
Hundreds of acres of hay fields are buried beneath 3 feet of sand, and the flood rolled a travel trailer half a mile, turning it into a wad of sheet metal.
“I think it’s wonderful these kids are here,” Parrish said. “It’s a personal blessing to have them stay here.”
Further downstream, where the canyon opens into the high prairie at Adam Tveten’s historic ranch, hundreds of uprooted cottonwood trees were in piles the chain-saw crews carefully attempted to dismantle.
On the last day of work, the Pinewood Springs neighborhood fed the students a lunch of barbecued ribs, salad, baked beans and Colorado Cherry Company pies at Steve Fitzgerald’s log home.
“These kids have done some incredibly hard work. It’s an amazing thing to see,” Fitzgerald said. “The neighbors have been a little overwhelmed with what we have to do, but when they see these kids, they find a little bit of hope that we can do this. They’ve been a godsend.”
Kim Bologna, a Pinewood Springs resident and a coordinator with the Colorado Recovery Group, said other groups have helped but the LSU students were special.
“These students get an A-plus, plus, plus, plus,” Bologna said. “I’ve never had such a kind, conscientious group like this before. The neighbors are delighted.”
Matthew Branch, 21, a senior history major from Many, ran a chain-saw crew and has been on similar missions to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for tornado recovery and local storm clean-ups in Baton Rouge.
“The Lord has really instilled in me a desire to go out and work and fulfill some kind of physical need for people,” Branch said. “I enjoy seeing the smiles on the faces of people when they see us coming to help them.”