Almost Heaven, West Virginia

Day 1: Practically strangers.

I was the one doing the service, but it was me who received something.

The Center for Student Leadership, Ethics & Public Service sends students across the United States and abroad over their spring and fall breaks on trips that focus on cultural immersion and service learning about social justice issues. Without much knowledge of what actually happens on the service trips, I was hesitant when I last minute joined the West Virginia alternative service break trip. I could not shake the thought that it would be voluntourism. I did not want to be taking resources, such as my time and money, to cover traveling to and staying in West Virginia that I thought might be more beneficial sent directly to the organization. It is easy to give your time and energy for a week, but it is also easy to get discouraged after seeing what work remains to be done in a community despite your efforts.

Wyoming County is a small county nestled in the Appalachian Mountains in southern West Virginia with a population of 22,151. Much like counties that reeled from the loss of tobacco or textile industries pulling out in North Carolina, Wyoming County has struggled recuperating from the decreasing importance of coal mining in the county. Though the county has beautiful mountain landscapes, it cannot bank on tourism to draw crowds and additional revenue because it is secluded and lacks amenities many look for when choosing a destination, such as proximity to a hospital, proximity to an airport, or cellphone reception. The seclusion also deters businesses from moving into the area. The county is stagnant and lacks resources or options to drastically rebuild the economy. The poverty rate in Wyoming County is 22.5 percent, double that of Wake County (11.1 percent).

Due to the rugged terrain,  weather and low household incomes, homes in the area are prone to deterioration that can create potentially unsafe living conditions. Appalachia Service Project (ASP) is a Christian home repair and new construction ministry through which volunteers and staff rebuild homes in rural Central Appalachia at no cost to the family.

Because one family opened their home for us to serve, the nine of us travelled to West Virginia to do just that as strangers. Spending every waking minute together, learning each other’s backstories and how all our different values lead us all to want to serve in similar ways, and bonding over the emotional experience of our work in an underserved community with such a wonderful and incredibly gratuitous family brought us all closer than imaginable. ASP made its center in Guyan Valley home for the nine of us while we worked on someone elses. For every nail hammered, every joke told, and every motivational push we gave each other (especially in the sleet on our last day), I owed a thank you to the family and to ASP for fostering these new friendships. I left West Virginia with nine new friends that felt like old ones.

All hands on deck finishing up the first wall.

Molly Jeffers working the saw with some assistance from John Taylor Willis.

Pete Pitman hammering OSB into place against the wall.

Because one family opened their home to their two granddaughters, we spent our week building a two-bedroom addition to make adoption possible and seeing the unconditional love the grandparents offered the girls. I told the grandparents both what good hearts they must have to be so willing to change their entire lives to raise two young girls, and acknowledged the sacrifices they are making and the strength they both have. Regardless of how many times I said it throughout the week, the two could only tell me how they were just doing what was right and would do it for any child, irrespective of blood. The grandparents would not accept an ounce of credit for what they were doing for the girls. That unconditional love, humbleness and kindness is truly inspiring, and I am thankful my team and I were able to witness it.

Because the staffers and family opened our eyes to the needs of rural West Virginia and much of the rural United States, the nine of us will forever carry a piece of Guyan Valley in all that we do. Social issues, such as poverty and substandard living conditions, can be daunting and it is easy to feel like your efforts are insignificant. This was the sentiment our ASP staffers expressed about their own work over the dry season. For months, they continued to receive applications and make home visits to houses in disrepair. With every completed project, hundreds remained that needed attention. Seeing the faces behind the work and what one week of service could do for a family reaffirmed the value of our service, even if it just our time. Though I was limited to one week of physical labor in West Virginia, I will continue my service and advocacy because the alternative break structure provided education about social issues and reflection about how I could be a contributing citizen, and why I would want to moving forward.

Putting up the first wall in the addition on our second day at the house.

Ashton Stuart, Will Margolin and John Taylor Willis waiting instruction to finish the wall.

The sound of the train rumbling by in the middle of night, the smell of the fresh mountain air as I ran in the rain, and the feel of Aliyahs hand in mine as we played in the yard are the pieces of Guyan Valley that will never leave me. Learning about the history of Wyoming County, I was reminded of my home county, Rutherford, North Carolina, which is still rebuilding its economy from the loss of the textile industry. The connections I was able to make between the two counties widened my perspective and understanding of the need for resources in impoverished, rural counties in Appalachia and across the United States. I think most people take well-insulated, dry, safe houses for granted; and even though now more than ever, I am particularly passionate about improving housing and other resources for underserved areas, I also learned that four walls do not make it a home — the people living inside of it do.

Day 7: Lifelong friends (minus the best staff advisor ever, Sarah Fayard.)

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