By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – For many college students, spring break is a time to relax and hang out with friends.
They head to sandy beaches, snowy ski resorts or sprawling cities to have some fun before the final stretch of the school year begins.
That’s not the direction one group of University of Nebraska at Kearney students went. Instead of visiting a popular tourist destination, they spent the week in Benton, Kentucky, population 4,800.
Kinzee Derr, Ella Hanson, Seneca Hertel, Abigail Huntley, Olivia Janssen, Amelia Moore, Ben Slaymaker and Ellie Weis are all part of Christian Student Fellowship (CSF), a nondenominational campus ministry that organizes annual mission trips during spring break. This year, the group partnered with Helping His Hands, a disaster response organization that’s currently rebuilding homes in western Kentucky, where a December 2021 tornado outbreak caused significant damage.
Accompanied by CSF staff, the eight Lopers met up with students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and South Dakota State University before traveling together to the Bluegrass State. They spent four days in Benton, working alongside a team of about 60 people tasked with rebuilding a local couple’s home.
Derr, Janssen and Weis had never been on a mission trip before, but they jumped at the chance to serve others.
“I thought it was a really good opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and try something new,” said Weis, a sophomore elementary education major from Kearney. “Also, I really enjoyed getting a lot closer to the other people in CSF during this trip and I wanted to meet new people, which definitely happened.”
Janssen’s decision was guided by her faith and future profession.
“Being a social work major, I really love to interact with people and serve people. That can take a variety of forms, so I knew this would be a really good experience for me,” the sophomore from Aurora said.
As members of CSF, the UNK students already try to emulate Jesus’ traits. But they didn’t know they’d also need his carpentry skills.
“Luckily, a lot of the guys were very patient with those of us who didn’t know what we were doing,” Weis said with a laugh.
The UNK students helped install metal siding, build a deck and run electrical wiring. They also got to meet the homeowners.
“They usually had tears in their eyes,” said Derr, a first-year pre-nursing student from Harvard. “I think they were really grateful. They’ve been dealing with this for so long.”
In addition to the homebuilding, the group removed wallpaper, painted, cleaned and completed other projects at the church where they stayed. During the downtime, they engaged in spiritual conversations and connected with other members of the team, which included college and high school students from across the country.
“It was really neat to meet all the other people,” Janssen said. “Even though we come from different places and different backgrounds, we share the same values.”
All three UNK students say their faith and gratitude grew during the week.
“I met so many loving people and saw the impact you can have, even with just this one couple, and I’ve really been reflecting on that,” Derr said. “That’s just an amazing outcome from this trip.”
“My biggest takeaway is not to take anything for granted,” Weis said, “because in that one day, their whole house was destroyed. I think it gave me a renewed feeling of gratefulness and a realization that every day matters.”
“I would recommend this experience for anyone. It’s just a great trip,” Janssen said. “They’re willing to work with anyone who wants to help other people.”
“And you might learn about construction, as well,” she added with a laugh.