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Reflections on Volunteering Among the Poor of Appalachia

Volunteering among the poor in the US is different from doing so in other countries.  In the Appalachian mountain area of eastern Kentucky, many people are indeed poor but we speak the same language (with different accents and pronunciations) and we share the same national heritage.  In many ways, volunteering in Appalachia was less stressful than my previous 10 volunteer trips to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

Our group included 10 college students and 10 adult volunteers, all associated with the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters (BFS) and their Volunteers in Mission (VIM) Program.  The students all attend the BFS-affiliated Alvernia University in Reading PA.   My sister-in-law, a Bernardine Sister, encouraged me to volunteer last year at their Mission Center in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (DR) which I did.

This just-completed volunteer trip was a follow-up to last year’s.   Our donors to last year’s volunteer trip shared in this year’s trip by extension.  However, this year I didn’t take the quantities of children’s clothes and school supplies (purchased with donor’s contributions) to Appalachia as I did last year to the DR Mission Center.

In Appalachia, we divided into two smaller groups to repair the homes of two families in David Kentucky, 135 miles south east of Lexington.  My group with four college students and five adults installed kitchen windows, and wallboard, sanded and painted walls, as well as some plumbing and electrical work.  The husband of the family, disabled from a construction accident, was caregiver to his dad who died of cancer in March.  The wife cleaned rooms at a hotel in nearby Prestonsburg.  Their limited income prevented the couple from purchasing building materials to repair their own home.  The donations of the 20 of us volunteers helped purchase the needed materials.  We worked for five days to repair and improve their home.  The husband helped as he was able.  His younger brother who had some physical challenges also helped.

The other group installed windows, gutters, soffits, and fascia as well as painting the exterior of the home.  The husband of the family recently died from cancer.  His widow worked part-time at the Mission gift shop.

We visited with the families as we worked on their homes. They talked about their faith and trust in Jesus.   We got to know them and became friends with them.  We found out that they face the same types of challenges and issues as we face daily.  They openly discussed their situations with us because they trusted us, making us feel part of their community.  They expressed their appreciation of our help in refurbishing their homes.

Each evening back at our living quarters, we gathered to reflect and pray about our experiences of the day.  We shared the positives and negatives of our work and interactions.  We got to know each other better and became our own small community.  Interacting with the families during the day and sharing with our small community in the evenings were the special blessings of the volunteer week for me.

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