For Phil Clauser, the decision to head to the Gulf of Mexico to help residents dig out from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina didn't involve much contemplation, or even free will.
"I had to go," says Clauser, who has served six deans as director of administration in the College of Arts and Sciences in the 30 years he's worked at Lehigh.
"I felt helpless, and wanted to do something, anything to contribute. I wanted to be a part of the solution instead of someone just sitting there watching these people struggle."
In the early days of September 2005, Clauser was recovering from a car accident when he found himself glued to the television set, taking in the heart-wrenching images of New Orleans residents begging for food, water, and rescue. "It certainly made me realize I had nothing to complain about," he says.
Shortly thereafter, he took advantage of the paid leave option offered by Lehigh to aid victims of Katrina by traveling with a group of kindred spirits organized through the First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem. While there, Clauser volunteered in the small town of D'Iberville, Miss., directly across the bay from Biloxi and at the epicenter of a wide swath of destruction.
He distributed donations, worked in the kitchens, cleaned up debris, helped rebuild houses, and generally offered a sympathetic ear to the victims. To his surprise, he found himself energized and inspired by their resilience, resolve, and, most significantly, their faith.
"I met people who were amazingly strong and amazingly resolute," he says. "They possessed this serenity, this sense that all will be well again -- a kind of faith I never experienced before. It was truly moving."
Clauser has returned two more times, dedicating a week or more each visit to continue the process of recovery and rebuilding. Although much of the area he's visited still remains devastated, he has seen signs of progress.
"This last time, I observed a greater sense of healing," he says. "There's this cathartic effect as you allow people to tell their stories and relive the emotions. It draws you into their world and this sense of ... oneness, I suppose ... this sense of a shared purpose that continues to comfort and motivate them."
Being able to witness that, he says, is "almost magical." And so, he adds, is the bond he's forged with his fellow volunteers who were drawn to the area from all over the country.
"It's similar to battle," Clauser says. "No matter where we came from, we all realized that this common purpose that binds us together is a tremendous motivational force that will continue to inspire us. And our reward is knowing that we're leaving, at the very least, a legacy of caring. That's the least we can do."
-- Linda Harbrecht
Kristen Jellison, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Research that matters in people's lives
Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Posted on Wednesday, September 05, 2007