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Cadets assist with Oklahoma tornado cleanup

MOORE, Okla. (AFNS) -- Spring break community service turned into a cleanup effort for 15 cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy, after a tornado touched down here March 25.

The cadets were building homes with Habitat for Humanity as part of their alternative spring break program, in the small community near Oklahoma City, when a tornado damaged some residential and commercial areas.

The cadets took shelter at a local church and caught fragmentary reports of the storm's impact.

"We didn't know how bad the damage was," said Cadet 3rd Class Katharine Kopinski. "We knew a school lost its roof and some homes were damaged."

Volunteers and cadets organized to help.

"The tornado changed our plans, so we redirected our efforts to cleanup," said Aaron McRee, a local construction manager with Habitat for Humanity .

The tornado damaged street signs, broke branches and trees, tore the roof off some homes and left debris scattered throughout the community.

"So far, we have cleared a lot of debris," said Cadet 1st Class Sarah Folce. "A lot of it is blown everywhere, and it's hard to tell where it came from. I'm from New Orleans and the damage reminds me of what you see after a hurricane."

Mel Odom, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, had a front-row seat to the damage. His house was spared, but some of his neighbors were not so lucky.

"All this morning, I had people knocking on my door, looking for work, contractors for everything imaginable," he said. "Then (the) cadets showed up. All they wanted to do was to clean my yard of debris - for free."

Cadets cleared Odom's front and back yard of debris, something he said would have taken days.

"The fact is, last week was our spring break at OU," Odom said. "My students were worried about their tan lines, worried about what bikinis to bring and worried they'd have enough beer money. Spring break is their slack time. And then I meet these Air Force Academy cadets, who gave up their slack time to help out in our community.

"People worry about the youth of today and what our world will look like whey they take over this country. These cadets dug right in. There's broken branches, roofing tiles, there's garbage blown in from who knows where, and there's sharp tin that can cut you. The cadets went in, knowing they can get hurt and still did it. People like these cadets are the future of America," he said.

The cadets in Oklahoma were one of five groups totaling 60 cadets who gave up their spring break to build homes with Habitat for Humanity March 23-27. The other 45 cadets are performing construction and renovation work in Houston and El Paso, Texas, Des Moines, Iowa, and Montrose, Colorado.

"The work ethic of these cadets and previous groups from the Air Force Academy is some of the best I've seen," McRee said. "I wish we could keep them here all year long."

The Alternative Spring Break Program is organized by the Academy's Center for Character and Leadership Development.

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