LIMA — Going into her junior year at North Park University in Chicago, Kenley Johnston visited an entirely different culture during her spring break this year through a school mission trip. Each spring break, the school sends teams of students on mission trips all around the world. Different groups of students visit places such as India, Mexico, Thailand and Ecuador, among others.
This year, though, there was a new destination on the list of possibilities: Appalachia.
“My mom went to the University of Kentucky,” Johnston said. “She always talked about how much she liked it there and how the culture was so unique and different. I’ve always wanted to experience that.”
Johnston attended the interest meeting and then filled out an application. Once she made the team, she interviewed with the team leaders, juniors at the college, to make sure she was ready for the challenge.
The trip was coordinated through Appalachian Service Project, a service organization that brings in thousands of volunteers from around the country to rural Central Appalachia to repair homes for low-income families. Their goal is to make homes warmer, safer and drier.
Johnston and her team of 16 other people left March 9 and drove to Guyan Valley Appalachian Center located in Brenton, W.Va., where they checked in. They were then divided into three smaller groups and given their assignments. The group stayed at the center until they returned home March 16.
“Our trip was basically planned out for us,” Johnston said. “We were to work on Miss Rebecca’s house. She lived up on a big hillside. There were mobile homes all over the hillside, and hers was at the top. Her concrete patio was slanted toward her house which caused water to run into it when it rained.”
The water had rotted the floor boards, causing the back door to sink into the flooring. The group’s job that week was to jack hammer the concrete on the back patio away from the back door. However, upon closer inspection, the team found that the flooring was rotted about 12 inches deep all along the back wall of the trailer.
So, before the team could start on the original job, they had to redo 15 square feet of supports that ran under the trailer’s floor joists. They then laid plywood flooring down and reframed the door, re-insulated the whole back wall along the patio and put up some siding.
It wasn’t until day four that the jack hammering started. Only one or two people in the group had any real construction knowledge.
“The rest of us were pretty clueless,” Johnston said. “By the end though I had learned to use a circular saw, and I was pretty handy with the electric drill.”
Johnston and her group enjoyed getting to know the homeowner.
“We loved Miss Rebecca. She was in her 50s and lived alone,” Johnston said. “Her son lived down the hill from her. She had no running water for the past 15 years. She had a rain barrel that she used for flushing the toilet and cleaning water, and she went up to this mountain spring for her drinking water. She was such a hard worker, and she knew more about construction work than any of us.”
Amazingly, Johnston’s group got all of the assigned work plus the extra jobs done in the short time they had there. For Johnston, it was important to get all that work done.
“This wasn’t just some fun project,” she said. “This work needed to be done and it needed to be done well because people had to live with the consequences of our work.”
Johnston’s trip also opened her eyes to a unique culture whose inhabitants had something to teach her.
“They are different than any other group of people here,” she said. “They take care of each other here. Even if they don’t have much, if they see a need, they meet it. Even though their way of life is very different and they don’t have the things that we do, they have part of life figured out that most people don’t — how to care for each other.”
The whole experience gave Johnston a renewed sense of hope in God and what He can do.
“The last day we were there, we got done early,” she said. “This lady came from ASP, and she and Miss Rebecca went out to the old well that had been broken for 15 years and were measuring. Turns out, she had qualified to get her well, so before we left we got to see Miss Rebecca sign a contract for a new well.”
Johnston said that incident was the biggest reason for her renewed hope.
“God does good things,” she said. “He was going to continue to do good things there after we left. Who am I to think that I take God and His goodness with me? He has plans for all of his people.”
For details about the Appalachian Service Project visit www.asphome.org.
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