This Appalachian mission trip, as I’m sure all the mission trips are, was a heartwarming and heart-wrenching experience which touched me deeply and is one I will never forget. It was an experience that reminded all of us how blessed we are and how necessary it is for us to help those less fortunate whenever we are given the opportunity. I was so happy to have been included, and very proud of the difference our girls made in the life of one woman.
My first Academy mission trip began early (4:45 a.m.) on Sunday, March 11th, at the Tampa airport. There were 21 of us—faculty member Edna Swafford (this was her fifth year volunteering to lead this trip), junior parent Dr. Solveig Ruppel, myself and 18 girls. Sleepy but excited, we flew to Charlotte, took another flight to Roanoke and then loaded ourselves and all our gear into three minivans to drive two hours to our destination, a modest six bedroom, two bath cabin at the Appalachian Folk Life Center in Pipestem, West Virginia. After a trip to buy groceries, we prepared and ate dinner and then attended an interesting information session by the center’s director. Then it was back for dishwashing and clean-up duties before we headed off to our cabin and collapsed into bunk beds—almost 19 hours after our day had begun!
We were assigned to the home of a woman in Bluefield which was about a 45-minute drive on winding mountain roads. The overwhelming poverty was clearly evident in Bluefield, particularly on her street. Her home was located at the top of the steepest street any of us had ever seen. There was a small, level area in front of her house and the residents would come all the way up and make a turn to go back down because it was too steep to do so anywhere else. Because of this, we met almost all the street’s residents and other curious neighbors in the first few days. Every one of them stopped by and told us what a wonderful thing we were doing. It was clearly evident that they all looked out for one another and deeply appreciated the fact that we cared enough to be there. Most of them came by every day to check on our progress and praise our efforts.
Both mentally and emotionally challenged, the woman we were helping lived alone now in her childhood home. The disrepair and neglect that confronted us on that first day was almost overwhelming. I truly did not know if we would be able to “fix it.” A previous group had put on a new roof but the damage done by leakage was terrible, particularly in the kitchen. The ceiling was collapsing and there was dirt, mold and years of grime to remove from every surface. The floor was peeling up, cabinets were broken, as well as a window and the kitchen door. We were supported each day by an incredible handyman named Mark, and he told the girls we were going to give her a new kitchen. They cleaned, installed drywall on one wall, painted, repaired cabinet doors, washed everything in the room and helped lay the new linoleum! Mark installed the new ceiling and door and repaired the window and taught the girls to do all that they did.
While one crew worked in the kitchen, the rest of us had to scrape and paint the entire exterior of her wood-frame home. The yard sloped down and placing ladders was precarious, but while some held ladders, others climbed them and scraped for a full day or so and then painted the entire house, including a front and back porch and eaves on the front and back of the roof.
I was so impressed with how the girls problem-solved, cooperated and worked hard each day so our group could complete this enormous task. In addition to their hard work, the kindness they showed Vickie, the homeowner, was touching. Away from the worksite, the girls were divided into three groups with one senior and two juniors acting as group leaders. The groups rotated cooking, dishwashing and prayer service detail daily, after working on Vickie’s home.
In addition to all our work, we also had a great deal of fun. Going out for ice cream, making s’mores around a campfire, playing board games and dealing with our daily (sometimes humorous) dramas—catching the “snack eating” mice in our cabin, getting a ticket on the way back from the work site one day, locking the key inside the van that held the lunches, sitting in the vans during a scary thunderstorm as lightning hit one of our ladders at the house knocking out all the power, and finally having our flight delayed on the way home.
It’s amazing to me how close you can feel to people after only one week, but I know I will always value the friendships made with each person in the group, and I will never forget the look on Vickie’s face as the girls walked her around her home and showed off all the improvements we accomplished. She had tears in her eyes as she took a group picture with the girls, and as she waved goodbye to us on the last day. We all knew we had made her life just a little bit better—we had made a difference!
- Maureen Raimo