Luther first-year students experience hands-on sustainability

March 20, 2009

Four hundred sixty-five Luther College first-year students and 37 first-year resident assistants devoted Sept. 6-7 to an unusual community service project: cleaning, sorting and stacking bricks as part of a dual-purpose sustainability project sponsored by Luther College Wellness. In January 2008, Decorah's historic East Side School building was demolished, and about 750 tons of bricks and were recovered. Oneota Historic Future Alliance, a local civic organization, purchased the bricks from the school district and arranged with Luther College to store the bricks on college property. An estimated 20 percent of the bricks are reusable, and community and college groups are cleaning them for possible re-use.

"We were surprised at the beginning of the project when we couldn't even see the bricks because of the extra rubbish, but after we finished, there was a big pile of beautiful bricks ready for use," said Greg Lonning, director of Luther's Wellness program. "To see what came out of two days time and a lot of hard work -- it was unbelievable."

About 33 tons of reusable have been cleaned and are now ready to use for construction projects on campus and in the community, according to Lonning. Bricks and pieces of brick that are not suitable for construction use are to be crushed and used in Luther grounds and landscaping projects that require aggregate, such as baseball and softball field warning tracks, sections of hiking paths and similar uses.

"It was amazing how much those piles moved down in two days, and once the bricks were cleaned, we received significant interest from the community to purchase the bricks to use in their building projects," said Lonning. "At first, nobody thought the bricks could be turned around and ready to use so quickly, but a large chunk of a building will go up thanks to these recycled materials."

Lonning said this year's service project was supposed to be cleaning the new Trout Run Bike Trail circling the city of Decorah. But the trail project fell through, and the brick-cleaning service project proved to be a possible alternative.

"It was a risky move, taking first year students and putting them on a pile of bricks," said Lonning. "But in the end, the students had a blast with the project because they were able to participate in sustainability at Luther."

Prior to the start of the project, Luther College sustainability coordinator Caleb Mattison presented an educational session about the importance of recycling and reusing followed by a safety session.

Even though the project had good intentions, not everyone involved in the project looked forward to getting a hands-on experience of sorting through rubble, scraping mortar and lifting bricks all morning on one of the first weekends away at college.

"When I first heard about the first year service project, I cannot say that I was extremely excited because I didn't really want to get up early on a Saturday morning and shuffle through bricks," said Jonathan Grieder, a first-year student and project participant. "Before this project, sustainability and recycling were keywords to show that you were cool, but they didn't really seem like things a lot of people did."

But many students, like Grieder, were pleasantly surprised by the experience.

"I predicted a waste of a morning but was very wrong," said Grieder. "The project was for a good cause, and I made several friends, all of whom I still spend significant amounts of time with to this day."

"This project showed me that there are people out there dedicated to these ideas and projects, and knowing that there are people out there who are trying to make things more sustainable makes me want to help out more with it because I know my efforts aren't going to waste," he said.

Lonning said Wellness will sponsor the bricks service project next year in order to complete the recycling process for the remaining bricks. This year's project participants believe the lessons learned from the project were an invaluable introduction to Luther College.

"From this project, I learned that Luther really is committed to becoming more sustainable and reducing our ecological foot print, and that I play a part in reaching those goals," said Grieder. "If you push a lot of people into a situation that isn't the norm and maybe a little uncomfortable, amazing things can come out of it."

In addition to upholding the college's commitment to working toward more sustainable operations, the bricks service project also gave first-year students the opportunity to connect with the new communities, both Luther and the city of Decorah, of which they are now a part.

"To have first-year students working side by side with members of the community after only a week here in Decorah was very exciting," said Lonning. "A community and a college cannot do sustainability separately, and students could sense the passion and realize how important the whole project was for Luther."

"I really don't think you can disconnect the Luther community from the Decorah community because they're both vital to the other," said Grieder. "Inter-community relationships are most definitely important to sustainability because it's only with large groups of people pulling together can real, substantial things be accomplished."