When it comes to disasters, Scott Harding has seen his fair share.
As the CEO of National Relief Network, Harding has helped to get eager volunteers to the devastated areas where they're needed. This week, they're at the Jersey Shore, helping locals recover from Superstorm Sandy.
"It's about as bad as it gets when you're talking about a hurricane," Harding said.
A group of 30 volunteers from Michigan is staying at the Silverton Emergency Medical Services building while they help out. The 30 students, faculty and staff from the University of Detroit Mercy was organized by Mike Rogers, a group coordinator who works with the ministry there.
Organizers had considered an overseas relief project this spring, but ultimately decided to help out those devastated in their own country. After Sandy hit, students focused on New Jersey.
"Students started coming into our offices asking if we were organizing anything for it," Rogers said. "These kids are all here because they wanted to make it happen."
Volunteers packed into in three vans for their trip from Michigan — they began their trip on Sunday and are leaving New Jersey Saturday, making a stop in New York City before heading back home.
The group has been helping families rebuild their homes, tacking up drywall and installing insulation in Toms River homes. Volunteers have been to Ortley Beach, where they helped to shovel thigh-high sand out of yards and worked at the Salvation Army center set up at the A&P shopping center.
"It's the largest group we've ever sent on one trip before," Rogers said. "It's wonderful."
Among the volunteers is Christa Hoen, a 21-year-old graduate student at UDM. She said that Sandy is fading from national attention, despite there being more work to accomplish.
"I was blown away by the destruction," Hoen said.
Students are pursuing different majors and come from various backgrounds, from inner city Detroit to farms in Michigan. The group is in good spirits as they help. In not even a week's time, friendships are forming.
"It's been awesome. It's been less than a week and we've already made good friends," Hoen said.
"I spend a lot of my day just cracking up," Harding said.
UDM provides the financial support they can for the trip, but the rest of the cost falls on the students, who are asked to fundraise at least $150 to participate.
"A lot of them do even more than that," Rogers said.
Local organizations have pitched in to help before — The Silverton EMS building housed 63 National Guard personnel after Sandy struck. It is home this week for the Michigan group, who sleep on cots in between relief projects.
"Since they are here to help our community, we wanted to help them," said Kevin Geoghegan, business administrator for Silverton EMS.
"For us, this is luxurious," Rogers said jokingly. Other relief groups have had to sleep on floors and church pews during past projects.
National Relief Network has been there for many disasters, from recent hurricanes in North Carolina and New Orleans, to tornadoes in the Midwest and ground zero in Manhattan. Another group had been to New Jersey in April to volunteer.
"There never seems to be a lack of work to do," Harding said. "We've literally been to every last major disaster in the United States in the past 20 years."
It takes "a special group of students" to donate their time to helping others, according to Rogers.
"They're all united by a real sincere desire — not just to help — but to be here with the folks of New Jersey," Rogers said. "There are wonderful people in New Jersey. It's been great meeting them."
Hoen had the opportunity to speak with locals while at the Salvation Army location in Ortley. There, she learned about what residents and first responders have experienced since the storm.
"It was heartbreaking hearing these stories firsthand," she said.
Getting students out of their comfort zone and into a disaster area is much different than watching a news report.
"When you're wading through a house full of sand and you see the family photos on the wall, it's real," Rogers said. "Hopefully they'd be moved again to do something."
That appears to be happening — one student is thinking about returning to New Jersey with his church this summer, and Hoen said that she "definitely" wants to participate in other relief efforts.
"It's all about planting seeds," Rogers said. "It's about nurturing these students into people who just do this. It's fun. It's wonderful."
"It's been an incredible experience," Hoen said.