Tropical Storm Irene devastated Williamstown’s most vulnerable population, the low-income retirement housing mobile home park called the Spruces. The vigorously independent. well-organized and beautifully landscaped senior community was home to many veterans, retired law enforcement officers, various public servants and Williams’ and MCLA’s retired employees. When we think of or imagine Williamstown, we instantly picture its omnipresent mountains and plentiful agricultural farmlands, but we rarely ponder those who live in its lowest valleys. Consequently, in the early 1950s, urban and rural planning professionals who built the Spruces did not consider measures necessary for securing mobile homes against the potential flood threats inherent in living in the valleys of these mountains.
Despite this troubling situation, there is good news: A recent U.S. Department of Labor study identified geospatial analysis as one of the 12 fastest-growing knowledge-based professional fields, a positive trend for more responsible building. Meanwhile, students at the College have, for over a year now, been quite literally picking up the pieces of this devastated vulnerable senior community just outside our purple bubble.
As good neighbors, the College has exhibited some of the highest civic virtues in our response to supporting this community, a true testimony to our mission and purpose statement. From student leaders of our rugby team who initiated a clean up just this summer to several Where Am I?! leaders with teams from the incoming Class of 2016, students have stepped up to help. Last year, a student inspired by her engagement work at the Spruces created a photo journal that not only documented the destruction, but also highlighted the resilience of the residents who remained in the Williamstown community. Lehman Council leaders have not only organized clean ups and Vitamin E brunches to build awareness, but they also have helped create a recovery campaign by starting a newsletter and a website; surveying and documenting residents displaced by the storm; and writing grants and then contracting with affordable housing developers to help rebuild this community with a non-profit organization called Higher Ground. So many College clubs and leaders have hosted charitable events to help with this effort. Our illustrious alumni have been instrumental in this recovery effort, which helped to secure grants that have brought in the professional services of the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development and secure law and policy regulation at the highest office in the State Attorney General’s office. This is not to mention senior administrators, faculty and staff – all of whom I have witnessed on a day-to-day basis putting much sweat equity into meeting the unmet needs of our neighbors.
In closing, the fact of the matter is that Williamstown’s most vulnerable citizens live in a space directly in harm’s way. I believe we can now imagine the potential threat as we look at the total devastation of superstorm Sandy just a few hundred miles south. The College has a special relationship with the citizens of Williamstown. Our very founding and thereafter our commitment to not abandon the town for Amherst was a collective community response in the face of naysayers and doubters telling us to leave town. Our legacy today is due in part to the vocal visionaries and people of strong faith and belief who refused to abandon our stated mission and vision of our college. Higher Ground could use your assistance in thinking about the geospatial rural planning for affordable housing in response to saving our most vulnerable community of retired poor in our beautiful Purple Valley. The Center for Community Engagement at Williams, along with our Chaplains’ Office, is committed to providing you with opportunities of service that can, given your rigorous liberal arts education and capacity for social entrepreneurship, create a legacy of purple-hearted professionals who have been to the intellectual mountaintop but compassionately serve those in the valley – locally and globally.
Bilal Ansari is the Muslim chaplain and the associate coordinator of community engagement.