Mount St. Joseph University

Students’ spring break was spent helping others

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File Under: immersion trip, mission and ministry, religious studies

Mount students on Appalachian trip.

For more than 20 years, students and faculty from the Mount have traveled to areas in eastern Kentucky for the Christian Appalachian Project's Workfest. This region's counties are among the poorest in the United States and in great need of improved and sustainable housing. Students are organized into groups and sent to different families' homes to help repair, rebuild and revitalize the area.

Mount religious studies student, Kathi Boland, took part in this year's immersion trip. The following is the journal she kept for the public to read to share in her experiences.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

This is the first day of my trip to Appalachia. I have had three, three-hour long classes to teach me about what to expect, and yet I feel I still have no idea what I will be faced with. I understand that there is abject poverty in the counties that we will be going to; I understand there is very high unemployment there as well.  The people have very few choices in their lives and the fact that there is not much hope that they will ever getting out of poverty must leave in its wake widespread depression. How do you minister to people with no hope for a better future? And yet, I am very excited to go and try.  Dr. John Trokan has said we will get much more out of this than we will get, but that is hard to see looking at it from the start of it. 

I have been praying for my family since last December, not knowing them or anything about them, but just keeping them in my prayers has kept them close to me and I love them already!  Tomorrow is the day I will meet them and begin the process of fixing parts of their house. We leave from the Mount shortly!

The trip to Appalachia took only a little over three hours.  It would have taken much less time, if someone (no names mentioned!) had remembered to pack everything they needed. That is the first lesson I have learned: forgive others their shortcomings; you are going to be spending a lot of time with them and having good relationships is paramount to keeping the air clean between us all.  There are nine of us on this trip from the Mount and we are very accepting of each other’s personalities, blending and meshing and being OK with who we are. My hope is that by the end of this trip, we still love each other!

The mountains are spectacular! The quiet beauty is breathtaking. Spring is just beginning to happen. Small flowers are pushing up in the undergrowth of the tall, tall trees and the birds are dancing and playing in their branches. The weather at Camp Andrew Jackson, where we are staying, is very nice; not too hot and not too cold. The men will sleep in their room, and women in theirs (there are two women’s rooms), bunk beds in each. There are separate bathrooms and shower rooms we must walk a short distance to, which is going to be interesting in the dark of morning! We are among the first to arrive and so have almost first choice of where we want to sleep (top or bottom bunk!) This is a summer camp for kids, but it easily translates into a college campus.  We have a few hours to unpack and wander around before the schedule kicks in for us to follow. A fellow camper, Corey, and I walk down the road and into the woods, instantly transformed from civilization to wilderness. On the sunny side of the hill we are walking up are the very beginnings of spring flowers pushing up and on the shady side of the hill there is still snow on the ground!

When the dinner gong sounds, about 100 college students form a circle for prayer and troop into the cafeteria to eat the delicious home-cooked meal prepared by men and women from all over who volunteer to come here and cook and feed us. The food is delicious!!!

There is a program after dinner with pictures of the families we are going to, the needs of their houses we are going to be working on, and the realization that this is happening in the morning.  Mount students have been split into many different teams – eight of them.  Most of us know no one on our team; they are made up from different colleges from all over the country! I am out of my comfort zone again… what will tomorrow bring??!

Monday, March 10, 2014

I have slept very little. Lots of noise in the room where I am supposed to be sleeping. More than 50 women trying to scrape out a living space less than the size of your bed makes for an interesting morning! My shower was varied from hot to cold without warning and trying to find a vacant sink (there are only five of them) to brush your teeth and take a look at yourself in the mirror was also interesting  Another lesson to be learned:  share your space patiently with others; we are all here for the same reason!  And everyone is amazingly friendly!

Breakfast is served early, (again home-cooked for us by volunteers who magically appear far too early to minister to our physical need of food), as we need to get on the road as soon as possible. Some teams have a much longer ride to their family than others, which means they have less time on to work on the house. Each college has a turn for devotions and the College of Mount St. Joseph is up first!! (Could it be because we have been coming here for 22 consecutive years, thanks to Dr. Trokan?)

As a college, we say good-bye to each other and join our individual teams to get to the job sites. We place our lives into the driver’s hands of another college member, now a member of our team!  The roads in the hills are narrow, windy and the residents travel on them at a high rate of speed! We are told to drive them MUCH slower; there are trees being cut down and then driven down these roads on frighteningly large and loud lumber trucks. My prayer life has doubled and it is only 7:30 am, but I am going to meet my family at last. She is a single woman who has recently had a heart attack and is still fighting breast cancer. Patricia is now “my” family.

The arrival at our house, about 30 minutes later, is abrupt! I am just getting to know the kids in the car and now it is time to get out in the cold and begin to fix things that I don’t know how to fix. Being uncomfortable with my surroundings is beginning to be normal for me. And I am somehow comfortable with it, as long as Patricia’s life is made a little easier. Be adaptable is the big lesson here.

I am put on the siding crew. I have never put up or taken down siding and so have no idea what to do. The house is at the top of a mountain with a spectacular, beautiful view of continuous mountain ranges, peaks and valleys, fog and sunshine. I just want to stand and look but work calls.  Patricia comes out to meet us with five dogs!  I meet my family for the first time and instantly love her and her dogs– she is so sweet and lovable! Each of us greets her and then she goes back inside to make us some hot coffee. 

Fortunately, there are crew leaders that bring the tools we need and the knowledge as well. I begin to tear off old siding, finding all kinds of bug critters living between the wood and decades old siding. The other two members of my crew I am working with, each from a different college, have no experience with this either but we begin to make a count of the different species of bugs we encounter.  This is actually fun!  The day has begun in cold weather and we are cold as our work starts out in the shade.  As the day progresses, we get warmer and start to take our coats off.  And when we move around to the back of the house, which is totally in the sun, we are really warm! Sunscreen was on the list of what to bring and now I see why. 

Patricia’s house consists of three rooms that I can see when I went in to warm up in the morning: a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom.  But it is two stories high (at the back which is on the sloping side of the mountain, it is actually more like three stories high), so there must be a full attic upstairs or more rooms. Recently there has been an ice storm up here and downed branches are everywhere.  I pull them into one general area as we have very long boxes of siding to put in the yard, as well as boards for the new porch that other team members are going to work on.  First they must tear off the old porch and find a spot for the trash pile as well.  Everything is on a downward slope, which is hard on the ankles.  We have an outhouse to use as our bathroom until partway through the day a port-o-let shows up on a truck down at the beginning of the driveway.  I am determined not to let any of these unfamiliar and uncomfortable scenarios get to me! This is, after all, what Patricia has lived with for fifteen years.

I discover that Patricia, or Miss Pat, as we have begun calling her, used to live in Cincinnati when she got married and had her daughter. She lived in Blue Ash! We have something in common to talk about whenever I stop to chat with her. Miss Pat sits outside in a chair all day to be a part of it all. Her son-in-law, Billy, shows up and pitches in to help us as well. He works at a factory in 12-hour shifts on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, so I cannot believe he has enough energy to work with us, but yet here he is. 

Our packed lunches disappear very quickly. Our crew leader, Mike, who works for Christian Appalachian Project, poses a question to each of us: who are we and what are we doing in school and what are we doing here? This is a great way to get to know everybody’s name, what school they are from, what they are studying and find out who they are really are. Lunch is over very quickly!

The afternoon passes in a series of tear outs and clean ups.  We have to be back to camp around 5pm to shower and be ready for dinner in time. After dinner, (another fabulous meal), there is a local singer/songwriter/storyteller who is coming in to camp for us for a completely enjoyable evening. I am glad I brought some money along so I can pick out a CD he has for sale! We are all thoroughly captured by this man’s talents in telling in words and songs what it is like to be here in the Appalachian Mountains.

I have to be at our Reflections at 9 p.m. and cannot believe I am still awake enough to do this. We break around 9:30 after we each talk about our day, our family, and what does this mean to us? This discussion is so rich and enlightening. I am so proud to be a part of such a group. I drag my exhausted self to my bunk and drop; pretty sure I will not have trouble sleeping tonight…

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I feel more like a human today as I have slept very well!  The same group of smiling, helpful and talented people that have been giving to us since Sunday evening serves breakfast. I am starting to remember names and thank them personally. This is an important lesson:  Be thankful and say so.

Morning meeting and devotions; instructions for another day of work and we are off by 7:30. A new tradition has begun in the car I am traveling in to the job site: we play the CD by Mitch Barrett, the artist who came to camp last night and poured out his Appalachian heart to us. We have fallen in love with a particular song:  “Drop In the Bucket”, which tells the story of making a change in the world by being a drop in the bucket. We decide we are going to play this song first thing every time we get in the car and make it our car’s theme song.

I am trying to journal every day to remember what the day is about, but I am finding there is very little time to do this (little energy as well). I miss being home, (don’t miss work!) but this is how I have chosen to spend my spring break and will not look back – there is so much to be done here. The workload is overwhelming and my little “drop in the bucket” doesn’t seem to be making a difference. But when I look back after the day is over, together we have made great strides. The weather has cooperated as well. When we leave, it is over 70 degrees! What a spectacular day to be in Appalachia.

Miss Pat had to leave today with her sister for a treatment at the doctor. Going to the doctor is not how we think of it. She must travel a long distance to a different county than where she lives and must wait an undetermined amount of time before she gets in to see him (which may not be too different from my doctor!). She returns late in the afternoon, clearly worn out but sits outside with us again to be a part of it. Her courage and determination to beat this disease is heroic to me. She will need to go again on Thursday to see what the results of her tests are; she will find out if her cancer has gone away or is still there. Much weighs in the balance of this appointment: so many changes for Miss Pat in this week, both in her physical home and in her health.  She faces them with a smile and faith and courage that things are changing for the better. This is not what I expected. The hopelessness that I thought would be prevalent is nowhere to be found. She is hopeful, joyful and thankful. I hang my head and repent of all my preconceived ideas of how the Appalachian people would be. Mitch (the singer) and Miss Pat have shown me what it takes to beat poverty: never bow down to it and never give up your faith that God hears your prayers and help will come.

We have made real progress on this house. So many different levels of talent are in this team: some have great experience in rebuilding a house while most have none! But we as strangers have come together and helped each other to make astonishing changes to this house. As I look around at each one, astonishing changes have taken place in us as well. We have become empowered, even as Miss Pat has, that there is nothing we cannot do. Set a task before us and we will learn the skills necessary to bring it to pass. Women who have never held a tool in their life are hammering, nailing, pulling out warped and water-logged wood, using a chop-saw, getting on a ladder… the euphoria we feel is catchy and thrilling! We are becoming pros at our particular jobs. Miss Pat is catching it too…

After dinner tonight we have a panel discussion of what life in Appalachia is like from four different viewpoints: Our very own Dr. Trokan is part of this as he is somewhat of an expert on what has taken place in these mountains historically. Then another speaker spoke on housing choices for the Appalachians in this area; the third spoke on unemployment, job choices, and what a typical monthly salary is and what it will buy you (approximately $700 monthly income); the fourth was my own crew leader Mike O’Brien (a graduate from the Mount as well!) who spoke on education. How little there is here for these people. The hopelessness is real, but those who live here and who come here are pushing back against what is “normal." How is it that I never knew the poorest county in the Unites States is three hours away from me? How could I have never known about their plight before or the unflagging attempts to make changes here by the Christian Appalachian Project? Now that I know, I have become responsible to make a difference as well. There are very good ideas and projects set up to bring about change for the better. They are making headway. One question continues to haunt me: What can I do about it?

Devotions again tonight at 9pm with just the Mount, led by Dr. Trokan. This college is well represented here, and I am proud. We are an insightful and compassionate group; again I am proud to be a part of it. It is “light out” less than an hour after we are done, and again, I am in bed before that, ready for sleep to take hold of me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

At breakfast this morning, I realize with a jolt that we are 50% done. We are nowhere near done on our family’s house; how can this be? And to make matters worse, we have gone from 70 degrees yesterday to dropping to 15 degrees this afternoon. The wind is fierce, making it feel even colder and it is pouring!  We cannot climb on ladders for the siding today, so we will all be working on the porch. It is a good day for us to take turns spending time with Miss Pat in her house with five of her seven dogs. Two of them are outside only dogs, and today is the first day I even saw one of them!  He has been gone to parts unknown up to now. The porch is really looking good, and the hot coffee Miss Pat has for us each day is especially good today, with as cold as we are. 

Miss Pat has cooked chili for us today for our lunch. That is such an undertaking for her as there are so many of us, and even a few of us are vegetarians, so she has made two separate pots of chili to accommodate us. God help us to become like her. My expectation of giving more than receiving has gone by the wayside. I have become poor in spirit, humble enough to see all the goodness of the people of this land, and penitent enough to receive what they have to give, which is pureness of heart, and everything they have.

We leave the jobsite early today, as there is really nothing more we can accomplish with the winds picking up, the temperature dropping as well as snow! My crew decides to take a side trip to the spring, where all the townspeople come to get their water, straight out of the mountain! It is very cold and refreshing. My crew leader, Mike, stops at the Frosty-ette to buy us all an ice cream as we stand shivering in the snow! What a land of contrasts, love and deeper love, heat and cold, grieving and forgiveness.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

None of us can believe it is our last day of work! We are so disappointed that we haven’t accomplished more for our families. They are so deserving and so very happy with what we have given them and what we have done is more than enough for them.  There will be two more weeks of workers coming after we are here to finish what we have started and to do more. Miss Pat walks on her front porch this morning when we arrive, apparently the first time she has gone out her front door since we worked on it yesterday and sees the new boards, new railing, new spindles, and sharply draws her breath in in surprise. She looks around, and for a moment, she is silent. Then, she says very joyfully, “Whale, I thank ‘ee! This is pertier than anything I thought I would ever have!” (I have written this phonetically as she said it, in her Appalachian dialect not to in any way make fun of her, but so that you would get the idea of how she spoke to us). We beam back at her with thankfulness at her appreciation of our new talents and each hugs her, telling her how deserving she is of this little enjoyment.  I would love to build a porch on the back for her, so she could enjoy the mountain view from it, but we must rush today if we are to just finish the siding jobs we have started on all four sides of the house. There will be no starting a project that is not even on the books! The next crew will have to tear off the side porch (which connects to the front porch) and build that new.

Miss Pat will not eat lunch with us as she is also diabetic and needs to watch what she eats to keep her sugar in check. After her lunch, she is off to the doctor’s office for the results of her test. We gather in a circle to pray for her before she goes and for good results.  In a couple of hours she is back, beaming with the good news that she has been given the all clear for a year before she needs to come back!  Joy, joy!  What wonderful news this last day of our workweek with her.

Tonight is our appreciation dinner in Berea, all of the crews eating dinner with each other and their families. Once more, it is our good fortune to partake of good food and good company. Each crew puts on a skit that they have thought up today about their week, their family.  Then any of the families that wish to speak may stand up and say what they would like. Their words of gratefulness and thankfulness caused many, many tears to be shed. I realize how I need to be so much more like them, disconnected to my phone, my text messages, my emails, Facebook, etc., and more connected to life around me; connected to people and not to things, especially virtual things.

If I could speak to each person at the Mount, I would encourage them to go to this most worthy place on Earth. Here we all become less of “me” and more of the world community at large, learning to be more accepting of others, their cultures, nuances, and sometimes, just their presence. May God bring these changes on the face of the earth to all those who are hurting and in need of love, jobs, food, housing, worthiness. Each day we can bring this change in our piece of the world, wherever we are. I found that Dr. Trokan was right; I surely received more than I gave. I have learned how shallow my life can be and how lacking it has been without learning to serve as the Appalachian people served me. The Good Samaritan’s lesson in the Bible has come crystal clear to me:  Who is my neighbor? The world is my neighbor.