“Our house was basically falling apart,” Walker said last month.
About four years ago, some clothes got too close to a heater in the back room, setting a fire that damaged the floor.
“You could basically crawl through the hole,” he said. “We pretty much just boarded that room up and didn’t use it.”
Walker explained that he didn’t have the finances to repair the damage, noting that slips behind his home added to the damage his home suffered.
Rewind several years back to the mid 1990s. James Walker was taking carpentry courses through the vocational school in Hazard under Pat Gooden. As a part of the students’ grade for the course, they were required to work in a co-op, and Gooden mentioned the Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a Christian ministry that provides for the housing needs of some low income families in central Appalachia, and their need for carpenters during their summer projects in the region.
It was a fortuitous meeting between James Walker and volunteers with ASP. As he spent his time during those weeks helping ASP, he would eventually call on their volunteers for help with his own home.
ASP first worked around Walker’s home a few years ago, digging a ditch around the residence in an attempt to drain water away from the wood in the structure.
“It worked pretty good ‘til those pipes filled up,” he explained.
But work began in earnest at the Walker home this past summer as ASP volunteers returned to Acup, a new crew each week from several regions in the eastern United States, including North Carolina, Tennessee and Maryland.
“They did some real, real good work,” Walker said. “Just me and high school kids, college kids, housewives, and church groups came in and did a lot of work on my house.”
And it wasn’t easy work by any stretch of the imagination. Walls were dismantled and rotten wood was replaced. A retaining wall was built behind his home by hand using railroad ties to prevent the hill from slipping further.
Dave Woodall was one of a group of volunteers from Raleigh, N.C. that worked on the Walker home in June. A crew had worked in the home the week before, tearing out the floor in one room and placing piers for support. Woodall noted that the crew in which he worked was able to complete several projects throughout the week, from insulating walls and installing sheet rock to building closets and repairing floors.
Traveling with fellow members of his church and his son, this summer’s week long volunteer effort was his second in Appalachia with ASP, but his church, Holland’s United Methodist Church in Raleigh, had been spending time in the region every summer for the past several years.
Woodall said the time spent volunteering and helping improve another person’s home is well spent, for both the family receiving the work and the people completing it, and it’s especially rewarding for the younger members of the crews.
“What it’s meant to my kids is unreal,” he said, noting that his oldest son, who just started college, and his middle child have both volunteered in Appalachia, and he expects his youngest son to follow suit when he’s older.
“What really pleases me is that every kid that goes wants to go back,” he continued. “That just amazes me. It’s hard, dirty work.”
Woodall said it’s a mutual feeling when it comes to the rewards that come from helping others, adding credence to the old adage that it is indeed better to give than to receive.
“They don’t realize how much it touches us when we see how it touches them,” he said. “It’s a two-way street.”
While Woodall and his crew had completed their week’s worth of work and returned to North Carolina, the work on the Walker home continued.
Dennis VandenBrink arrived in Perry County later this summer as part of a crew from Kalamazoo, Michigan, spending the first two days completing the retaining wall behind the home.
VandenBrink said his church has sent volunteers to work on homes in Appalachia for the past 32 years with ASP, and this year’s effort was his second time being personally involved.
VandenBrink said the thrust in his church is for the younger members to get involved in volunteerism, and like Dave Woodall, noted that is is a wonderful experience for the teenagers.
“It’s a chance for them to see how other people in the U.S. live that don’t have the advantages they have,” he said.
VandenBrink’s first effort with ASP was in West Virginia a number of years ago, he said, when his own daughter was in her mid teenage years. This year, he was able to accompany his wife on the trip. He noted that working and spending time with the homeowners was a large part of the experience.
“We had a great time with Jim,” VandenBrink continued. “I would say that part of the ASP experience is not to spend all your time working, but try to get to know the family a little bit.”
And by the end of the week, much like Dave Woodall noted earlier, the rewards were evident for both the family and the volunteers. “Everybody felt good about what we had done when we left,” he added. “We left the home in better shape than when we started.”
Aaron Sibley, a graduate student from Tennessee, spent more time with ASP in Perry County than did Woodall or VandenBrink, but it was from a much different angle. Sibley served as the center director for the Chavies center of ASP. Working above four other staffers, he approved and oversaw the projects that were completed throughout the summer, and he sees from a different perspective how ASP is able to help families in Appalachia.
“ASP obviously makes an impact in the communities that it works in,” he wrote in an email last week. “This is obvious from the warm way that so many families and community members welcome us every summer and during the year round program.”
Sibley, who served as a volunteer himself before working on the staff, noted that not only do the volunteers spend their time working on these projects, but also some of the money they bring with them. The rest of the funding is raised with what he described as a “creative auction” where staffers would shave their beards or compete in ice cream eating contests.
But, at the end of the day, a pattern has emerged in which working with ASP has created a change not only for the families, but for those on the other side of the effort as well. Like Dave Woodall and Dennis VandenBrink, Aaron Sibley noted that not only are the homeowners the recipient of change, but so too are the volunteers.
“ASP is an organization that I love dearly, I have been involved with it in one form or another for about 10 years now,” he wrote. “It has shaped who I am and everyday when I wake up and say a small prayer of thanks for the opportunity to help shape the lives of all the volunteers that I have had the pleasure of interacting with over the past three summers.”
And as for the homeowners, James Walker said his family is ready to continue their lives and move forward, and they’re in a better position to do so. While not everything is completed in his home, and there is a chance that crews could return to his home at a later date, Walker said he couldn’t be more thankful for the volunteers like Dave Woodall and Dennis VandenBrink who set aside a week of their own lives to help a fellow human being.
“We are very, very grateful for everything that they have done,” he said.