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Building good from horror

Months after the campus massacre, Virginia Tech students find that personal redemption can come from service to others.

December 23, 2007|Sue Lindsey | Associated Press

JONESVILLE, VA. — Courtney Lynne Bush squinted in the sunlight as she plunged her power drill into a neoprene screw, attaching a piece of new tin roof.

On the ground below, an overalls-clad Kate Andrukonis bounced on and off a ladder as she directed installation of kickers -- support beams -- to keep a wall from caving in while a concrete foundation was laid.

They were among about 30 Virginia Tech students who traveled nearly 200 miles to paint and put up siding, roofs and gutters at five houses.

The journey to Virginia's southwestern tip was organized this fall, but it had its genesis years ago, when an Illinois teenager named Austin Cloyd discovered that helping poor folks in central Appalachia enriched her own life.

Then, last spring, Austin M. Cloyd was shot to death -- one of 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus who died at the hands of Seung-hui Cho before he killed himself.

Her parents, Bryan and Renee Cloyd, were determined to turn their grief into a positive force by carrying on the work their daughter had pursued for four summers. They organized two fall weekends of volunteer labor for the faith-based Appalachia Service Project, with more trips planned in the spring.

The point of the weekend was to help others; the events of April 16 rarely were mentioned. Some of the work crew didn't even know beforehand that the trip was in Austin Cloyd's memory.

One was Braxton Cox, a fifth-year architecture student. "I just like doing service," he said. "It's really a blessing to see that there's other young people, people my age, who care about important things. When you're in school, you see people who just party all the time."

Andrukonis didn't know Austin Cloyd, but she has vivid memories of being locked down in a basement classroom after the April shootings. She remembers when she was allowed to leave, and how she walked alone across the huge main lawn ringed with state troopers.

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," she repeated as she walked.

And here she was, seven months later, on a crisp November weekend, leading a volunteer crew -- shoring up a dilapidated addition to a 200-year-old log home.

"We can just be college kids who want to serve, who want to do construction and get dirty," said Andrukonis, a sophomore and longtime Appalachia Service Project volunteer who was a paid staffer at one of its Kentucky centers last summer. "We don't have to be somebody else, somebody who's healing."

Courtney Bush knew Austin Cloyd; they met as freshmen in February. She still addresses notes to her friend on Facebook, and she has drawn close to Bryan and Renee Cloyd. Bryan Cloyd teaches at Tech now.

She didn't know of Austin's service project work until after her friend died. "Since she's not here, it's like doing it with her," Bush said. "There were a couple of times when I felt her presence."

Bush's only previous building experience, she said, was helping her dad build a play set for her little brother at their home in Raleigh, N.C.

Cox, the architecture student, said the Virginia Tech massacre had caused him to focus on the evil in the world.

"You say, 'Man, there's crazy people in the world. I need to lock my door at night,' " he said. "And then you come down here, you see the good in people."

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