The late John Denver sang of the scenic Appalachian mountain range as being "almost heaven," but when volunteers from Cheshire thought of the classic song during a recent week in Wyoming County, West Virginia, the living conditions there may have caused many to linger on the word "almost."
After two previous trips to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, this year the connected with the Appalachia Service Project during a week-long trip from March 26 to April 2.
The Appalachia project has been providing home repair assistance to thousands of poor families since 1969. Nearly a quarter of American citizens live below the poverty level in Appalachia, where a basic improvement like installing insulation or fixing the leaking roof of a family's house can be a life-changing experience.
The Appalachia project, whose motto is "warmer, safer, and drier," furnishes building materials and tools, while an ever-changing cast of volunteers from around the U.S. and abroad provides labor.
It was a third "mission trip" for nurse practitioner Lisa Canas, whose carpentry experience at home is limited to simple repairs. In West Virginia, she found herself running electrical wiring, cutting sheetrock, and installing walls, ceiling joists and vinyl siding. She was impressed by the warmth and friendliness of the local people she met during her first visit to Appalachia. She was also struck by the depth of need she encountered.
"I realize there's poverty, but usually in life you are able to drive by it," she reflected. "You get to be a part of it when you're actually at someone's house and entering their home and their lifestyle. You meet them where they're at. You can't be judgmental. You just go in and do the best you can."
Construction credentials among the 19 members and friends of the Cheshire church who made the trip varied, ranging from longtime local contractors Larry Pivirotto and Kevin Ross to others with little or no previous repair experience.
The group was divided into four work crews, which were then assigned to ongoing projects around the county. One crew repaired the walls of a frail trailer inhabited by a single mother and her two young children. Another crew completely replaced the rotting roof of a dormer, which had been leaking fetid rainwater into the resident's home for months. All of the crews worked on insulation projects, often trying to resolve a home's complex problems with limited resources.
Working in isolated mountain communities where unemployment has been high for over a century, and OxyContin-related drug crimes are commonplace, was a greater cultural shock to some volunteers than the church's previous trips to the South.
"The people of the Gulf Coast were victims of a natural disaster," said Associate Minister Alison McCaffrey, leader of the Connecticut group. "They had all kinds of people rallying to help. But this is an ongoing situation. There aren't any FEMA trailers here."
The Cheshire volunteers slept in a decommissioned school in the village of Brenton, the base of Appalachia project's operations in Guyan Valley, where the main industries are lumber and coal. Employment opportunities in the mining industry have been reduced by the controversial practice of removing entire tops of mountains to extract coal, rather than by the more costly and labor-intensive method of traditional mining.
Some of the volunteers visited a remote mountain top removal site, now converted into a bleak, sun-scorched golf course. While the daily work schedule left little time for sightseeing, the organizers arranged evening programs, including a lively visit from a local bluegrass band. The boisterous Connecticut contingent also managed to view a UConn basketball championship game at the only Mexican restaurant in nearby Pineville.
The sentiment that helping people was the best part of the mission was voiced repeatedly. "You get more out of it than you feel you're able to give," said Canas. "And there's so much work to be done. I would definitely go back. It's an area that needs as much help as it can get."
"We wanted to fix more than we could possibly do in a week," agreed McCaffrey. "We always come back transformed by the experience."
For more information about future mission trips, contact the Congregation Church at : http://www.cheshirecongregational.org/index.html.
To research the Appalachia Service Project, click here: http://asphome.org.
Editor's note: The author participated in the mission trip to West Virginia.