By Eleanor Harte
A small group of college students stands in a circle around a pile of lumber, fitting construction helmets on their heads and pulling on work gloves as they listen to a man holding a saw give instructions. A few of the students shiver as a cold wind rips through the group, but they continue to listen intently. As the man finishes talking, they break apart and begin to pick up tools: a drill, a hammer, a ladder. They get to work, and suddenly it’s hard to hear anything over the roar of the saw and the sound of nails being hammered into wood.
The students are in eastern Kentucky, spending their spring break repairing homes and building new ones for families in need. A group of 15 UMass Amherst students in the Newman Students Association chose to go on the alternative spring break trip last month. Led by Fr. Jon Reardon, they drove to Kentucky over the span of two days – they stopped in Pittsburgh overnight.
Lindsey Russo said she was inspired to participate in alternative spring break because of her history with community service. “I went on a trip to Neon, Kentucky in high school and I really liked it,” Russo said enthusiastically. “It was the best experience I had in high school. I went to Catholic school and I felt it was the best way to live out my faith in action. Alternative spring break has allowed me to discover the true meaning of Christ in my daily life.”
The group worked with a nondenominational Christian organization, the Christian Appalachian Project, which provides physical, spiritual, and emotional support to people in need living in Appalachia. They participated in CAP’s alternative spring break program, Workfest 2013, which provides students with an alternative spring break program and at the same time allows CAP to finish projects on a much quicker schedule than they would be able to do with their regular long-term volunteers.
Russo’s team built a porch and added a bedroom onto a house for a man awaiting a heart transplant, even braving a thunderstorm one afternoon to continue the work. “Working in tough conditions showed me how much we rely on God and each other. Material things start to lose their value.”
Students worked in teams with students from other schools, building porches, additions to houses, and repairing roofs. Mireille O’Connor was on a team that added siding and outside insulation to the home of an older couple who had built their home over 30 years ago, but now found themselves with a leaky roof and a home that was cold in the winter.
“The family’s reactions were really touching. The couple’s children and grandchildren were so thankful that we were helping them,” O’Connor said, smiling as she described the family, who she grew to really care for over the week. “One of the best parts was when the family hugged us and how they really cared for us. They cooked us chili hot dogs and vegetable pizza, macaroni salad, even butterscotch cake and cupcakes. They were so nice. I didn’t want to leave them. I wish we could be there to see the end of the project.”
The project should be finished in the next few months. Even though she won’t be there to help finish the project in person, O’Connor is thankful she got the chance to work on it. “I had never done a service trip before and I always wanted to do one because you get to see firsthand the reactions of the families because they’re there. The other type of volunteer work I usually do is fundraising for things, and I never really get to see what the hard work is going toward.”
Alec Bergweiler went on the trip because his friend had a good experience on a similar trip with the NSA last year. “I wanted something else to do for spring break other than sitting at home doing homework,” said Bergweiler. He worked on the home of an older couple plagued with medical problems – first, the husband had three heart attacks, and then the wife was diagnosed with leukemia. “She’s in remission now, but their medical bills were really high,” Bergweiler said, which caused the couple to spend the money they planned to use for home repairs on medical treatment. CAP stepped in to help the family with the repairs.
O’Connor calls the trip her best UMass memory. “I think learning to work together with all different types of people throughout the trip and getting to know them while helping the family at the same time was the best part.” The diversity of the volunteers was an aspect she appreciated as well. “It was really cool how all the helpers came from different walks of life but had the same common goal of wanting to help the family and really worked together to achieve that.”
Bergweiler did things in Kentucky that he had never done before. “I got up on the roof, knocked down a chimney with crowbars, added siding to the house, and put a metal roof over the existing shingle roof.
Seeing eastern Kentucky was also a highlight for Bergweiler. “We went to the original KFC restaurant, and Cumberland Falls, which was cool because I don’t see waterfalls very often.” Cumberland Falls is known as the “Niagara of the South,” and is located close to the camp where the group stayed.
“My favorite part was how friendly the people we were helping were. They were very down to earth, and getting to know them was nice. The husband talked to me about how he was a firefighter and flew planes – he had a really full and interesting life.” Students often talked to the homeowners while working and on lunch breaks. They shared stories of faith and life at college and learned about life in Kentucky.
Bergweiler says he would definitely go on a similar trip again. “We improved the homeowners’ lives through direct impact, which was great.”
Lynn Pham found out about the trip through a friend. “It was a great bonding experience. I made a lot of new friends from UMass, who I never would have met otherwise. One of my favorite parts was playing games, like Taboo, a group word game, kind of like charades where people shout things out – it was a lot of fun.”
Pham has participated in a number of service projects before, but none made as big of an impact on her as Workfest 2013. “I’ve done food pantries, given donations, and worked at nursing homes. But I wanted to see my actual volunteer time being given to needy people as well as see the impact that I was making.”