For the past five years, students at Fordham Prep in the Bronx have been living the Ignatian call to be "men for others" by serving in the Appalachia Service Program.
The house building and repair projects in which they get involved provide students with a communal experience of Church while working directly with those in need.
In 1998, about 20 percent of the juniors participated in projects in West Virginia, Kentucky, and New York. Students collect money throughout the year; funds from raffles, bake sales, and dances defray the cost of building materials and transportation. Last year, students raised $13,000 to help finance five week-long trips.
While in Appalachia, students stay in dorm-style facilities and work with local service organizations such as Christian Appalachia Project and Sharing With Appalachian People. Trip chaperones, all lay members of the Fordham Prep staff, have included ministry coordinator Michael Greco, English teacher Michael Curtin, math teacher Suzanne Henry, and secretary Anna Butkowksi.
In these essays, students reflect on their trip to Appalachia and describe how they experienced God while they were there.
Ministry Coordinator and Co-founder of
the Appalachia Service Program
In June 1997, several classmates and I loaded into a van at Fordham Prep and headed down to Harlan, Kentucky. As we rode south, the atmosphere slowly changed. We stopped at a McDonald's in Virginia where the man taking my order asked, "Is this for here or for there?" That's when I knew the kind of culture shock I was in for.
Our first morning in Harlan, we went right to work. I was sent with six others to a house occupied by a woman in her early 50s (she looked 70) and her grandson Chris, one of the nicest kids I had ever met. He helped us paint, hammer, and saw, and would run to the corner store to get us soda. He often brought out his radio, the only battery-operated toy he ever owned. This ten-year-old, who had only ventured out of his county twice, would sing "I Believe I Can Fly."
On the way home I wrote in my journal, "It is amazing how far a twelve-hour van ride can take you. It is surprising how isolated New York is. It sounds kind of funny, but I never imagined that my own country would be like this. Some parts were depressing, but at the same time it was all so unbelievably beautiful."
It was my first day at the West Virginia site, and I was very excited. We were fixing this run-down porch, and it was tough work. We tore down the old porch so that a new one could be built. The woman who lived there said she needed a new porch to walk around on, but after getting to know her, I felt this was not the reason. In fact, her refrigerator was blocking the door to the porch! I came to the conclusion that this woman wanted her home fixed for the company we offered. She was a sweet old lady who probably didn't get around much and wanted us to spend more time with her.
My theory was correct. On the day the work crew finished her porch, she asked, "Maybe you guys can come back and paint the kitchen ceiling?" I knew in my heart that the crew and I had touched that woman. I felt that I was a part of a family.
My Appalachia experience helped me realize the meaning of the starfish story, where the man keeps saving starfish by flinging them back into the ocean, even though he is aware that millions still remain on the shore.
Day one in Louisa, Kentucky, began with me scrubbing paint from the restroom tiles of a broken-down church. At the time I loathed it, viewing it as the most demeaning and insignificant chore ever assigned to Appalachia volunteers. But hope eventually came in the form of a ten-year-old girl, Britney Mae Little, who had been scoping us since our arrival. She lived across the street from our dorms and became our constant companion.
Toward the end of my time there, she said something to me that made all the minute tasks I had performed that week worthwhile: "My parents said you guys are really helping out. I help out too, you know. I feed my dog." From that point on, I no longer resented the seeming lack of impact of my work. Britney showed me that our work was important since it helped people take the initiative to better their own conditions. That, I think, is the objective of all such service projects: to offer an example for people to continue hoping.
Mr. Carney had been telling us that it was tradition for Prep kids working at Nazareth Farm in Salem, West Virginia, to bathe in the river. We protested, saying it was too cold in February and we would not do it. But one day after work, when we were all playing football in the mud and rain, I decided to go into the river. Who cared if it was cold? I was feeling ambitious. So I just jumped in.
I had never felt anything so cold in my life. At the same time, I had never felt more alive. Later on that night, as I recalled the creek, it became for me a symbol of rebirth in my life. During this trip I learned that my former values of materialism and selfishness didn't count for much in the big picture. I wondered if those values were really necessary to be happy. I mean, here I was living in simplicity, service, and community, and I was happier than I had ever been. I felt fulfilled.
I was praying too. Not just going through the motions, but really concentrating on God and the meaning of life. I learned that I like helping people. And living in community made me feel whole and gave me a sense of belonging. Before that day, I did not like sharing my feelings with people. That night, however, I bared my soul to a group mostly made up of strangers. To this day, jumping in that freezing creek was the best thing I ever did.
Probably the most memorable experience I had while at St. Francis Farm in upstate New York was when we went to the funeral of a woman who had been close to the people on the farm. The woman had very little family, so when we were asked to go to the funeral to support her grieving sister, we decided that it would be a very worthwhile and important thing to do.
As it turned out, there were many people at the funeral, but our presence meant a great deal to the sister of the woman. She looked like she was going to cry, she was so happy that a group of high school students would care enough to come to her sister's funeral. She noticed how strange we felt being there, never having met the woman, and this made her thank us even more. This moment touched me because we got to see how much we meant to someone right then and there.
For a week we renovated churches and a school in eastern Kentucky, painting buildings, scrubbing bathrooms, cleaning floors, and making facilities accessible for the disabled. The reception we got from the local people was both heartwarming and gutwrenching. I had never seen such dire living conditions. Yet despite it all, the people were happy to share their limited resources with us.
The week culminated with a breakfast with the director of Christian Appalachia Project, Fr. Ralph Beiting. While there we presented him with a check for a few thousand dollars that we had raised. I did not realize the impact of our work or check until I saw the tears of gratitude in Fr. Beiting's eyes. This was his life's devotion. He had been serving the forgotten of Kentucky for 50 years. I was only there for a week but was moved by the overwhelming nature of his mission!
I was touched by his people, and I will not forget the impression that this man of God and his commitment to others made on me. The one thing I learned on this trip is that no matter how much labor you give in service to others, they give you much more in return. The smile of a young child or the thank you of an overworked, underpaid father of six is worth all the time and effort of a trip like this.
The work I did at Nazareth Farm in Salem, West Virginia, was immeasurably fulfilling. Yet the lessons I took from my time there were mostly learned through community interaction. The people of the area surrounding Naz Farm are some of the poorest of the poor. Just for them to get through each day alive was astounding to me. But they did so much more than that. On community night, I met the greatest domino player I have ever seen and also a man with a great sense of direction. After telling him I was planning a trip to South Carolina, he pretty much mapped out the entire way from my home (400 miles away) all the way down to the coast. Through these interactions I learned that the people of this area are not poor people, they are real people.