International rescue and relief students assist with disaster relief in central Florida

International rescue and relief students from Union College in Lincoln, Neb., thought they had seen the worst winter rain storms Florida had to offer during two weeks of ocean survival and dive rescue training. But on Friday, Feb. 2, news of pre-dawn tornadoes a few hundred miles north of their training posts in the Florida Keys prompted 19 Union College students and staff members to find a way to help.

In cooperation with ACTS (Active Community Team Services), a faith-based, volunteer disaster response team, the group exchanged a rest-filled weekend for an all-night drive to put their humanitarian relief training into action. The group arrived in Lady Lake, Fla., at 3 a.m. Saturday morning (Feb. 3) and were volunteering by 6 a.m. They assisted with the setup of ACTS's circus-sized tent near the destroyed Lady Lake Church of God.

"The rescue and recovery teams had completed most of their work by the time we could get to the disaster site," said Michael Duerhssen, co-director of Union's international rescue and relief program. "The priority for our group was helping ACTS prepare and distribute meals, water and personal care items to the people in the greatest need following the storm."

The distribution site near the church was a hub of media activity over the weekend including visits from Florida's governor Charlie Crist and the director of FEMA. While volunteering, Union students were shadowed by local and national news crews covering the aftermath of the storm.

In addition to helping at the ACTS tent site, a team of Union College students drove a cargo truck through the devastated area to distribute goods—food, water, diapers, blankets, medical supplies—to people unable to get to shelters or afraid to leave what little they had left unsecured.

"We had many opportunities to pray with the people we were assisting," Duehrssen said. "We praise God that we were in the right place at the right time to be able to help even if it was only for two days."

On Monday (Feb. 5), the rescuers-in-training returned to South Florida to prepare for their next service and education adventure. On Wednesday (Feb. 7), 21 Union College students and three staff will fly to Venezuela for 10 weeks of training in tropical medicine, preventative health care and humanitarian relief in remote villages.

Union's international rescue and relief major is the only four-year program of its kind in the United States. With an emphasis on hands-on learning, the Bachelor of Science curriculum combines rescue and survival skills, emergency medical care, humanitarian relief, public health, disaster management and multicultural training.

To learn more about Union College's international rescue and relief program, visit or call 402.486.2980. To read more coverage about Union College students assisting in Florida, view these publications online: Ocala Star-Banner and the Lincoln Journal Star.