The class began in late January, but Ratté began planning for the course shortly after Tropical Storm Irene. Although the disaster also hit the town of Marlboro and the college, the devastation in Wilmington offered not only an opportunity to study how the community recovers, but also a chance for students to actively participate in the recovery work. “My interest was to engage the college in the community,” Ratté says. “I had been interested in trying to offer a community engagement class for a while, but I always thought ‘How does an art historian get engaged in community engagement?”
Community engagement is the focus of the Vermont Campus Compact, a nonprofit coalition of colleges that promotes higher education with a civic mission. Through VCC, Ratté was put in contact with two UVM professors who had taught a class in disaster recovery and were able to offer her some ideas for the class.
As an art historian, Ratté was drawn to Wilmington’s historic district and its architecture as a study subject. “Lately I’ve been more interested in urban design, although my field is medieval,” she says. “But similar principals apply. It was also helpful that my sister is a planner in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts.”
Five students signed up for the class, including Twin Valley High School senior Stevie Cunningham-Darrah, who was attending the Marlboro College class through a high school program.
Along with their classroom work, students actively participated in a variety of recovery projects, most of which were organized under FEMA’s long-term community recover program.
Cunningham-Darrah and Marlboro College student Eva Grimaldi worked to increase youth involvement in the recovery process, and were surprised to find little interest, at least at first. Grimaldi says that, after encountering resistance, she researched the subject and found that it’s typical for teens not to seek involvement in recovery efforts after a disaster – it’s the way they cope with such a drastic change in their lives. But their project will continue through the summer, working with students to gather some data on how the flood affected stream biology.
Marlboro student Avi Azoulay, who is also a member of Marlboro’s Volunteer Fire Department, worked with police chief Joe Szarejko and fire chief Ken March to develop a disaster response plan for Wilmington. Azoulay said his plan drew substantially from Vermont Emergency Management’s Vermont Yankee plan. The plan he helped create for Wilmington includes a “reverse 911” system for contacting local residents and businesses by phone in the event of an emergency.
Marlboro student Claire Linsdale-Riley worked with the historic village group on the circularization plan. As part of her work, she produced a number of drawings of “pocket parks” (small greenspaces that connect walkways) as well as other plan details.
Finally, Marlboro student David Amato worked with The Deerfield Valley News, providing coverage of Irene-related topics. Amato is the editor of the Marlboro College campus newspaper The Citizen. Amato covered stories from the flood experiences of 1836 Country Store owner Al Wurzberger to this year’s Irene-themed Green Up Day. “Without David’s help, we wouldn’t have been able to cover some of these community stories,” says Deerfield Valley News publisher Randy Capitani.
Ratté says the feedback she’s gotten from students suggests the class was a tremendous educational opportunity. “I think they got an enormous amount out of being in the class, and going out to the community.” Ratté says students were particularly pleased that a number of Wilmington residents visited the school for their presentation last week. Several Wilmington residents said they hope the connection between Wilmington and Marlboro College will continue beyond Irene. Ratté says she hopes to encourage more community engagement at Marlboro College, and she plans to stay involved. “The circularization committee plans to paint a mural on the FairPoint building (on Church Street), and I’m planning to get Marlboro students involved with that,” she said. “I’m hoping this is just a beginning, not just for me, but for my colleagues at the college.”