There are stories-within-stories and that’s where we begin with this Mission Trip to Appalachia in far Eastern Kentucky. Scheduled through a non-profit called Hand-in-Hand Ministries and coordinated through Saint Patrick School & Church for 7th and 8th grade kids who volunteer to repair homes for the underserved.
The irony of the picturesque scene bewilders me. Imagine the most beautiful parts of mountainous Kentucky with Fall leaves changing color and a topography unlike anything you have seen in person. Now zoom in. Vacant mobile homes. Dilapidated houses. Not a grocery store, Target or Walmart in sight. Maybe a hospital. Nothing that signals you are in a thriving city. I felt like I was meandering through a Ghosttown. And I wondered what the heck I was doing there with my 14-year-old daughter and if my presence was really needed or if this was some instance that was supposed to make a middle class (or upper class) family feel better about themselves.
I wondered where I was going to sleep. Shower. Use the restroom. And what I would be fed. This trip was taking me completely out of my comfort zone, away from work, horses, and my comfortable life.
The Auxier, Kentucky schoolhouse was my new residence. An old building converted into a dorm complete with a Rec Center; Kitchen; Cafeteria and Chapel. It was clean. Quite comfortable. No odd smells and very organized. The staff was waiting for us and greeted our unit with hugs and honest, thankful smiles. We did an orientation and learned about the families homes we would be repairing for the next several days. I was still nervous. Especially about me (and my daughter) using a dang table saw to slice through wood and cement siding. The most manual labor I had ever done was carrying heavy stuff from one place to another.
We had a great meal. Prayer. And it was to bed. BTW – super comfortable bunk beds. Thick mattresses etc.… I loved my bottom bunk, except for Lucy’s endless tossing and turning above me.
Morning came and it was time to get to work.
I was assigned a house that needed underpinning and a lot of wall repair & paint to make it more efficient for heat insulation and just overall “prettier” inside. It smelled like smoke. At times it was hard to understand the families because they had MAJOR country accents with slurred speech. It was everything your mind is conjuring up reading this. I didn’t want to use their bathroom. I actually went rogue and took my wet wipes up the road… That’s how I met “Charlie” the neighbor. Yup. MmmHmm.
We worked and worked and whistled while we worked. The kids shared an enormous spirit of cooperation and never complained. Not once. I felt a lot of pride. They honestly wanted this house to be better. They were kind. And compassionate. I felt an undercurrent of something spiritual telling me they were glad I came and this is what we should be doing more of for humanity. I did not feel guilt over my privilege, rather a sense of you have a certain set of gifts Carolyn, even if it’s making people laugh and smile and you should be using those gifts at every given opportunity. That plus sanding a wall that created the biggest cloudy mess I have ever seen. I was covered in white dust head-to-toe. We then washed the walls and painted the interior a neutral eggshell color.
This went on for a few days and at night, when you really want a glass of wine and a hot bath – it turned into a planned activity. Porch Pickin’. As in Bluegrass Pickers strumming their instruments and a room full of people (mostly seniors) clogging and dancing their fannies off. Our kids danced with each other… the folks there… Me (that was funny) and I met a new man – Clarence. Sorry husband. But he offered me homemade moonshine and a Saturday Supper which I graciously declined.
It was a blast.
We fell into bed exhausted and fulfilled.
We wrapped our projects until the eleventh hour and got it done.
Ready to go home.
And then realized the site leaders and people there were staying. And that they were home. I really enjoyed my site leader. I am sure many people do. He is a practical joker and so funny. He came to reflection prayer and said some words I will always remember. And when we packed it up, he stuck his goofy mug in my driver’s side window with tears in his eyes and said, “Thank you. We truly appreciate your help. And I really hope you come back, Carolyn.”
I felt a large lump in my throat.
I drove away with a car load of kids Louisville bound.
I am REALLY glad that I went on this trip.
In the words of our very own Muhammad Ali: “The service you do for others, is
the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Carolyn Gaeta McLean