Culture

So much more than service: Christian Appalachian Project

 

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Top row, left to right: Matthew Fosdick, Jennifer Riddering, Paul Zimmerman, Annalise Bourdeau, Brian Blau  Second row, left to right: Claire Lapinski, Anna-JO Stuart

 

Story by Anna-JO Stuart, Opinion Intern
Photos courtesy of Anna-JO Stuart

Over Spring break this year, I got the opportunity to go on the service-learning trip to the Christian Appalachian Project, CAP, in Eastern Kentucky. For this trip, we stay at a large boarding house of sorts, with other students from colleges across the country. We are then split into several smaller groups that work on their own work sites with a particular family.

The main purpose of this trip is to repair homes of impoverished families. Appalachia is known for having higher rates of poverty than typical in the United States, and this has left many families living in homes that we would not deem suitable for living. That is where CAP comes in. They have many families on a wait list that will receive services based on need. CAP provides more services than just home repairs (and sometimes new home builds), but this is the focus of the event they host during Spring Break called “WorkFest.”

Going into this trip this is what I expected: to be volunteering my time to repair impoverished homes. I expected the service part of this trip, I did not expect the learning part. I did so much more than just serve those who were in need, I learned about the culture, about my faith, about myself, and I built lasting relationships, all in a matter of days.

For the week, each work group gets paired up with one family and their home to work on for eight hours a day, for four days. The family also works with the volunteers if possible. My group and family were somewhat unique, because they had three houses in one holler (a small valley), and two of those houses had a work crew assigned to them. I was assigned to one of the houses. My work group got to work not just with the family of our house, but with their extended family as well. The man who was living in our house was there every day, working from we got there to when we left. Working so closely with the people I was serving allowed me to get to know them on a much deeper level. I learned their commitment to hard work, their faith in God, their strong family bonds, and their positive outlook on life despite their circumstances. Through this I was able to see them as individuals, and even friends, not just distant participants in need. Gaining this connection made the service I was doing just that much more meaningful to myself and the participants.

This trip also gave me the opportunity to grow in my faith. It was inspiring to be in a place where each person had an amazing story of faith to share with those around them. Each morning and night one of the schools would give a devotion, but what was even more moving were the stories shared throughout the day that displayed the beautiful ways that God had worked in their own lives. Through these stories, I was able to reflect on my own life and gain a better understanding of how God can be seen in the smallest and biggest of ways, ways that I may not have noticed before.

Beyond reflecting on my faith, I also learned more about myself, who I am, and the impact that I want to make on the world. You are given a lot of time to think when you have to spend six hours caulking around windows by yourself. I realized that after many years of trying to find my voice, I have gone a lot farther than I have had the chance to reflect on. I realized that I am strong, capable, and confident, and that was such a powerful thing for me to learn from myself and my peers.

Finally, I built relationships that I will hold closely to for the rest of my life. I became close to the family I was serving, and those that I was working with in my work group. Particularly, the short-term volunteer who was a supervisor on my site, Terry. Terry became a mentor for me as we worked together on many challenging projects in the home. As we worked together we shared stories, and he taught me so much more than how to cut a hole in the wall. I also built friendships with students at Aquinas that I didn’t even know before this week. We all got along so well, and got to share our experiences each night by a bonfire. We went from strangers to close friends, and the process by which that occurred is something that I will cherish forever.

It is hard to put that one week into words. I still feel that there is so much more to write, even after all this. I recommend it to anyone who has considered doing a service-learning trip. It is easy to understand the service part of the trip– we worked hard and accomplished a lot for our families. It is the learning part that, if you allow it to be, will have the most impact for yourself and those that you interact with.

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