QUINCY -- Julie Ross wanted the mission trip that nine Quincy University student-athletes made during spring break to be meaningful.
She was determined to make it fun, too.
The regional director for the Western Illinois chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes reached out to local businesses in the Port Aransas, Texas, area to unearth enjoyable activities that would allow the students to feel like they were actually on spring break.
It made the nights as enjoyable as the days.
"Honestly, I could not have picked a better spring break," QU volleyball player Lucy Grenda said.
The group spent the week helping the First Baptist Church of Port Aransas continue to rebuild from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. They did construction on the Sunday school and youth buildings, helped clean the fellowship hall and tackled any other chores.
"Most of the kids did something they'd never done before," said Ross, who pitched the spring break trip idea at one of the weekly FCA meeting on the QU campus during the first semester. "We installed new kitchen cabinets and countertops. I had guys wiring light fixtures and plug-ins. We had kids running a table saw to put up crown molding. There's an art to that. That's not easy to do.
"I was proud of them for their willingness and the way they dug in and got things done."
So she made sure to reward them.
Many of the nights were spent in the condominium where the group stayed, playing cards or other games. There was sightseeing as well.
The group took a chartered boat tour of the Gulf of Mexico near Port Aransas, which is on Mustang Island near Corpus Christi. They went to an amusement park where they raced go-karts and bumper boats and played miniature golf. They even were treated to a crawfish boil.
They also stayed true to the mission. The group held nightly devotions where they read scripture passages, prayed and opened up to each other about personal experiences.
"Everyone took a turn leading our devotions," Ross said. "Everyone was involved in the discussion every night. That draws you closer together, too."
Some of the QU students admitted to being merely acquaintances before the trip. They came home bonded.
"As each night went on, we all got closer and closer," Grenda said. "You could tell by the end of it we were sharing some pretty deep stuff with each other that we weren't sharing at the beginning."
The real reward was digging in and helping the area rebuild.
Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coastline the final week of August 2017, dumping more than 50 inches of rain in places. Winds on Mustang Island were recorded at up to 130 mph. The island is connected to Padre Island and to the mainland by one road, which was the only route for evacuating families.
Port Aransas has a population of 3,480. Only 70 stayed through the storm.
"It's hard for me to imagine when the hurricane was coming what took place," Ross said. "So 3,410 people left and there was only one road to be on. It's hard for me to imagine what that traffic must have looked like. It was an OK road, but there was water in the ditches. We were there seven months later, and there's still water in the ditches.
"So I can't imagine how high it was to get into those houses that are on stilts. It was crazy."
It explains why the rebuilding project continues seven months later.
"I saw the effects of the hurricane as it happened, and I knew I wanted to go help the people," QU football player T.J. Daniels said. "I felt I should step out of my comfort zone and do something to give back. They needed help to get back on their feet."
What Daniels, Grenda and the group experienced was remarkable.
"My expectations were blown away," Daniels said. "To be around people who were rebuilding their lives and have them be so appreciative and so positive was incredible. It helped me more than I helped them.
"They showed me that no matter what you go through, with Jesus at the center of your life, you can survive. It was one of those things you do that you never forget."
The positivity of the hurricane survivors was more inspiring than anything else.
"They were so grateful," Grenda said. "I never heard one negative comment from anywhere. They never complained about the hurricane. They said it was a trial. They never said it was something that ruined their life. They never dwelled on it."
They dug in to help alongside the mission groups.
"It's titled a mission trip, and we did a lot of work," Grenda said. "We logged more than 30 hours of service, but it was still incredible. I had so much fun doing all of that I would have not considered that giving up my time."
A return trip isn't out of the question.
"I'd go back down right now if someone would give me a plane ticket," Grenda said.