2018 is the “Year of You”
We are celebrating the “Year of You” in 2018. You sweat on our worksites in Central America and Kentucky. You invite guests to our events to hear our story. You write checks. You remember us in your estate planning. You give us your time, your talent and your treasure. And we treasure you!
This year we want to know what, and who, inspires you. If you have an immersion trip experience, favorite Hand in Hand memory, or favorite person you have met, we would love to talk with you and share your story with others through our eblasts, social media, newsletters and website. Everything begins with you, so if you have a story to share please reach out to us and let us hear your tale at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Tom Wittman, board member
I first came to Hand in Hand somewhat reluctantly. Marla and I attended the same church (Middletown Christian) and there were several times that she got up in front of the congregation and talked about Hand in Hand and invited folks to go on an immersion trip, specifically to eastern Kentucky. I would hear this and convince myself that “mission trips” are not my thing. Besides, I am a terrible handyman (as my wife Cindy and other tripsters can attest), I do not like hot weather, and I am just too busy (and probably other excuses as well). One day after church my wife said she signed up for a trip to Auxier with Hand in Hand and since I had just retired, I had run out of excuses and went with her.
The experience changed me (although I am still challenged with actually working with tools….yes really). “Lend a Hand, Change a Life” is written everywhere within Hand in Hand and I did not realize until I went on a trip (to Appalachia in my case) that the life being changed is not the people of eastern Kentucky, but it was me being changed. It is not about the work being done (which as I have stated is a good thing in my case), but it is the people and relationships formed during the trip experience that make a difference. This is true not only among the tripsters and Hand in Hand staff, but also the individual people who we get to meet and talk with during the trip (see picture of Miss Lillie and me from a couple years ago to the left).
Our world is a better place because of what people experience on a Hand in Hand immersion trip. There are books people can read that describe the importance of relationships to each of us as human beings (the Bible, Purpose Driven Life, etc.), but an immersion trip provides a real life experience to what is only written down on paper in these books. A trip really does “change a life.”
In October 2016, I gathered into a twelve passenger van at Villanova University, almost 600 miles away from Hand in Hand’s Auxier Center. Five hundred and seventy-five miles and one week later my life was changed by the people, experiences, and mountains. I had not only learned valuable home repair skills, but I also met incredible people who made their life goal to give people a hand up.
The Auxier Center created a beautiful community that made me want to return, so in October 2017 I did! Again, I had an experience that opened my perspective, allowing me to meet wonderful people and form deep relationships, and challenge me. Not only was I able to learn to replace a roof, build a floor, spackle and drywall, and build a ramp, but I was able to learn about the lives of those who live in “Hillbilly Heaven,” as the people of Auxier say. I learned of the hardships that the community endured, such as a lack of jobs and increased drug use. I learned about the joys of the community, such as the Jenny Wiley Festival and the simplicity of sitting and looking at the mountains.
Above all, Hand in Hand changed my career path. Before Auxier, I was on the path to law school and then corporate law, and I may return to that someday; however, after experiencing my week in Auxier with Hand in Hand, I saw that I was being called somewhere else. I encountered a girl on one of the sites; she was deaf in one ear and had learning disabilities. After spending a week with her, I realized I wanted to work with students as a population, so I applied to Teach For America.
For the next two years, I will be teaching in a low-income community to help combat education inequality. Without Hand in Hand, I would not have been called to teach. I feel absolutely blessed to have been welcomed into the Auxier community by Gail, Gloria, Joe, Jackie, and Rick. I know my heart and home is with Hand in Hand at the Auxier Center.
We figured when your high school son asks to do a service trip with his family before he leaves for college, it doesn’t get any better than that – we would make it happen. Six months later and our family of five was in Belize with Hand in Hand.
Our week in Belize was amazing for all of the expected reasons: we were able to build a house (in a week!) for someone who was in desperate need of housing; we met fabulous, fascinating people we would never have met otherwise; we learned about Belizean culture (in ways we would never have, had we come on a cruise ship). However, the surprises were even better. The woman who was going to live in the home we were building – the woman who was there, side by side with us, hammering away on her house in the hot Belize sun – decided to cook lunch for ALL TWENTY of us, not once, but each day!
No need to read the story of the Widow’s Mite, when it is being lived in front of your very eyes…Before the week was over, all three of our kids agreed; we needed to go on another trip, but next time we needed to bring their cousins (and Aunt and Uncle!) and most importantly, Grandma. Nicaragua brought more surprises – perhaps my favorite memory was the look on Grandma’s face, when one of the gentlemen we were building with complimented her, remarking that he had never seen someone look so elegant while doing cement work!
So, our family says: GO! Go often! Bring family! Bring friends!
You will arrive back home richer than when you left!
Alex Cox signed up with some friends for a trip to Nicaragua his sophomore year of high school and he’s been involved with Hand in Hand ever since.
“I really liked the cultural immersion aspect of it and seeing the impact,” Cox said.
Alex’s group built a house for Nan, our cook in Belize. “It was really cool because we knew her before we even went to help with the house.”
By the time he needed to decide on an Eagle Scout project, he was invested in Hand in Hand’s mission.
“I like your focus on hand-ups, not hand-outs.”
Hand in Hand moved offices in the summer of 2017, which was the perfect time to help out, Alex said. After talking with staff, he decided to revamp our garage space. This space is used to house tools and equipment for our Louisville Urban Immersion groups that serve in West Louisville.
“I just wanted to create a space that’s going to be helpful for you all,” he said.
In order to raise money for the project, Alex hosted a trivia night. Over 70 people were present at the trivia night where parents provided snacks and prizes were donated. Alex raised over $1,000 dollars for the garage project.
“I just wanted to do something a little different. I knew we needed a relatively large amount of money…” he said. “I wanted to do something kind of fun.”
With what he raised, he was not only able to finish the space, but also add electric and lights. Henderson Services donated their time and services for this project.
Alex’s favorite part was seeing it all come together. “Just seeing the finished space and thinking about how useful it’s going to be for you guys, hopefully, in the future.”
Alex still remembers what he learned from his immersion trip experience last year.
“I have gained a different view on the world,” he said. “Seeing the people there (Nicaragua) and seeing how grateful they were even with how little they had, really has changed the way I look at things.”
Hand in Hand can’t thank Alex enough for his passion and hard work with this project! The garage space will serve hundreds of volunteers in our Urban Immersion program.
When I first met Jeptha on a cold February day in 2016, he was elated to see us. He was a little disheveled but a gentle soul living in a four-room, concrete block home on the top of a steep hill in Hagerhill, KY. He was heating his home with a kerosene heater and the heat was escaping through a large hole in his ceiling. He had no bed and was sleeping on an old couch with springs exposed. He had no running water, but access to water from the cistern behind his house.
With no access to a washing machine, he simply wore the same clothes and the ones he didn’t wear were piled onto a chair or in black garbage bags. The bathtub and sink were useless and he did the best he could to keep his house clean, but also struggled with throwing away items he no longer needed.
As a team, we patched the hole in his ceiling, removed the old, dirty carpet and couch, and sorted through the belongings that were strewn through his house. Slowly, he began to help.
He worked with the group to sort through his own belongings and decided himself what he wanted to keep and what he wanted to throw away. We cleaned the bathroom and it was ready for demo. Jackie (Project Coordinator) installed a new shower with a bathtub and a new sink. A group later hooked up his cistern to the house and he had access to water in his home.
Now, he is healthy and happy. His home has been painted and a bed was donated so he no longer needs to sleep on an old, broken-down couch. He also has in-home care assistance which helps him pay bills, arrange doctors’ appointments and maintain his home. Gail (Auxier Director) now takes groups to visit Jeptha, someone who has transformed not only himself, but also the volunteers who have spent time with him.
I remember a tripster asked him how his day was going the first time we met him and he responded, ‘I have no complaints today.’ Looking around at the living conditions, we all agreed to not complain about the blessings that we do have, and now Jeptha is one of those blessings.
To see more of Jeptha and his home, skip to the 4:15 mark in this video of Assumption High School’s 2016 trip.
Imagine moving to a foreign country for two years, unable to return home and living on $60 a month. Sound crazy?
Meet Grace Hulesman, our Jesuit volunteer, who has done just that as a social worker for our Building for Change Program in Belize for the past two years. Grace will be leaving us when her is term is up in June. She will be sorely missed as she has grown to be a part of our Belizean family!
Grace goes to work as many employees would – the only difference being that she does not have a salary. She receives a stipend to offset the cost of living and then as an individual, she receives $60 a month for personal costs. The goal of this, is to live within the community as a community member.
“It gives volunteers the opportunity to engage in work and volunteer service when they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to and to live in places that, you know, I would have never been in Belize otherwise,” she said.
Having had international experience before in El Salvador and an academic focus in international development, she said this was an opportunity to have more experience in the field before delving into a full-blown career.
“I like JVC because it gives me the opportunity to have a full-time job with an organization, but it also gives me some background support that I wouldn’t have if I had just moved down here and looked for a job on my own,” Grace said.
Although Belize is an English-speaking country, Grace has been able to use her Spanish as a translator in the Building for Change program. Her Spanish skills were one thing she knew she didn’t want to lose.
Her biggest challenge, was adjusting to a brand-new country with brand new people at the age of 22. Although Grace wouldn’t trade her experience for anything, she said there were moments at the beginning where she questioned her decision, partly because she knew she would not go home to New Jersey for two years.
“That has gotten easier as I’ve grown comfortable and acclimated here and formed new networks,” she said. “But there were definitely moments where I was like ‘wow I really don’t know anyone here.’”
She said the relationships she has formed since is what she will miss the most when she leaves. Describing the community as “deeply welcoming,” she said she has felt lucky to know and work with Hand in Hand staff and our clients.
One of Grace’s favorite things has been to see the real impact of projects and the possibilities of the future when a family receives a home.
“It always blows me away – every time we build a house it excites me to think about the potential behind that,” she said. “It’s cool to me – you have an organization and it has a mission and you see that mission actually played out.”
Grace’s favorite memory, among many, is a house blessing from last year. The group had to move inside during the blessing due to pouring rains. They decide to sing ‘Lean on Me’ and Grace said it created a special moment for the homeowner.
“You can hear it (rain) coming down on the roof and seeing in our client’s face this recognition of like finally she has a roof of her own over her head,” she said. “A single mother who had been hustling her whole life to take care of her kids. It seemed like the rain was blessing the house ten times over for her.”
Hand in Hand is blessed to have had Grace the past two years and look forward to what she’ll do in the future! In June, she’ll return home to New Jersey for a short time and then go on to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C. She’ll be pursuing her master’s in Global Human Development.
“It’s funny because now I’m at the point with JVC where I feel like an old Grandma like reminiscing on my life,” she said. “It’s definitely been a crazy two years, but it’s been a really awesome experience.”
Letter from Pathway to Change Student, Idalio Alvarez, age 13, Nicaragua
“In November of 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to the United States to give a speech about my experience with Hand in Hand.
I admit at first that I was afraid to fly and afraid of how I would be received. Would people be kind? Would they treat me differently because I was from another country? These little things ate away at me as I prepared for the trip.
I remember that when Mr. Ed and I arrived in the United States I felt overwhelmed by the huge differences I saw right away in the economy and the lifestyle of the people. And, on top of that, I suddenly felt more nervous than ever about speaking in a language that was not my own (English!) in front of so many people.
Traveling to the United States was such an enriching experience for me. Not only was I able to share things about my daily life and the gift that Hand in Hand has given me to go to an excellent school in my own country, but I got to glimpse another culture, see some beautiful places and, above all, meet some fantastic people. Through the friendships I made, I realized that there are no borders between friends and that we are all citizens of one world. Even though I’m still a kid and still have a lot to learn in life, this is one experience I will never forget.
Right now, as you may have seen in the news, my country is undergoing a process of change. I never imagined I would ever live through a situation like this, with schools being closed and the country in such bad economic decline. The most painful part is the violence that has resulted in so much loss of human life. But even in the midst of this uncertainty, we will never lose the hope that Nicaragua will again be free. ”
“Gail and her gang came into my life at a very dark time; I had all but given up and become far too comfortable with the idea of just laying down and letting my medical issues run their course. I had worked my entire life and I had found my identity in my career. When I fell ill, I was forced into retirement, a fixed income, and this old mobile home, it felt like I was stripped of my identity.
You can imagine my surprise when my friend told me that she knew of “this place” that helped people in my situation. It was somewhat of a whirlwind from that point on – a life changing, eye opening, heart-warming whirlwind.
The improvements they made to my home were more than just life changing – they were life-saving. The way I was living was not conducive to my health. I have wounds on my legs from diabetes that require constant care, which I was unable to do given my original bathroom configuration. With my swollen legs and feet, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get in and out of it from one day to the next.
In the months since the renovations, the wounds on my legs have nearly healed. I’m not sure I’d even have legs today (literally) if I had continued neglecting them the way I was forced to do before. I can also now brush my teeth and shave in the sink with a mirror.
The ramp that they built me was another one of those things that changed my life. Due to my mobility issues, the 5 steps that I had to tackle to come and go were another nightmare. I suffer from social anxiety and agoraphobia and so I struggle with forcing myself to get out and be social. Now that I have the ramp, I have my freedom back.
I am happier, healthier, and I am very grateful. I was given hope when I didn’t have any. I was made to feel like a human being again. I am more determined than ever before to get well and hopefully pay it forward.
I was just as much renovated from this experience as my home was.”
When Donna inherited her home in Portland after her mother died last year, she had intended to sell. But, after a few months, she decided to try and make a home for herself and her granddaughter Waverly, 3, who lives with her.
Unfortunately, the task of making a livable home was over-whelming. After hearing about Hand in Hand from a neighbor, she came knocking on our door for help. Since then, Hand in Hand groups have been working alongside Donna pulling up carpet, painting, repairing a sinking bathroom floor and more.
“There’s some cosmetic stuff that I’d like to do, but the bathroom and kitchen are going first because we want to be able to live there,” Donna said.
Donna has been very involved with Hand in Hand, not just as a homeowner, but as part of our family. She has gone to dinners with the groups and most recently marched in the Portland Festival Parade with us.
Our Louisville Project Manager, Bill Wilson works with local families and organizations to match home repair and community impact projects with our Urban Immersion groups.
“Bill has put the drive in me,” she said. “I probably would have thrown in the towel.” Her home could have become one of the 7400 abandoned properties in Louisville.
Most recently, a youth group from All Saints Parish in Guilford, IN worked on Donna’s home. As Waverly was leaving the office one day, she passed one of the group members, gave them a high-five and said “thanks for coming here.”
Donna and Waverly are planning to move into the house in August of this year. She is thrilled to get to stay in Portland where she grew up.
“It’s letting me have my first house and I’m 52,” Donna said. “My mom would be proud.”
Miles started serving with “Mustard Seed,” which was an organization working for a similar mission as Hand in Hand. The organization had offices in Georgia, Alabama, Massachusetts and Louisville. As it grew, talks of combining the four became more serious and Father Joe Fowler, our co-founder, decided to go a different direction – the Louisville office became Hand in Hand Ministries in 1999.
Jim has traveled countless times to Appalachia with Hand in Hand and most recently traveled to Belize for the first time to witness the dedication of the Fowler Community Center.
“I couldn’t believe it, I mean, I didn’t expect a modern building down there,” he said. “Everything you could think of and a whole lot of things you couldn’t think of.”
As far as why he has continued being involved for so long, Jim said it’s all about the people he has met along the way. One story, among his favorite memories, is of a little trailer he and others helped fix for an older man and woman in Auxier, KY. There was a gap between the roof of the trailer and the roof of the porch so they were unable to sit out on their porch.
“We straightened the roof up, but we didn’t have time to fix the porch. But a bunch of young girls on that trip went to Lowe’s, put flowers up on the porch, put a swing on it, got the roof fixed good so it didn’t leak,” he said. “When we left there, that man and woman was crying sittin’ there in the swing.”
A few years ago, Jim was able to donate a van full of home repair supplies, which they still use in Auxier today.
“The people want to share with you and if a person goes on a trip and can’t do anything at all – if they just talk to the people that is great,” he said. “They love to talk and they love you for doing what you’re doing. You get more out of it than you put into it.”