GENEVA – This summer, more than 100 teens and adults from Geneva will pile into vans for a long drive to eastern Tennessee. Once they arrive, they will build decks and porches, fix leaky roofs and damaged drywall, dig drainage ditches and build retaining walls.
For about a week, they will volunteer with the Appalachian Service Project, a Christian volunteer organization operating in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. The organization provides home repair for low-income families, as well as some free home construction. Its primary goal is making homes “warmer, safer and drier.”
ASP was founded in summer 1969 by a minister with the United Methodist Church. Since that time, ASP has grown into an organization operating in 25 communities in five states. Each summer, about 15,000 volunteers repair about 400 homes.
The United Methodist Church of Geneva has been directly involved in ASP work since 1982, when it sent six members of its congregation. This year, there will be 104 taking part, most from UMC-Geneva and some from other neighborhood churches.
“I had no idea what to expect,” said volunteer Liz Carson, who has been going on the trip with UMC-Geneva for three years. She went for the first time in 2010 with her son and her mother. “I just have always wanted to do a mission trip with my son,” she said.
“We knew we’d be sleeping in a school and on air beds and probably not getting a lot of sleep,” Carson said. “We knew it was going to be hot. We knew we’d be sweating a lot, and we knew the showers and bathrooms weren’t going to be great. But we’ve all camped before, so that wasn’t going to be a problem. It was a good cause and well worth it.”
What she didn’t expect was how emotional the experience was going to be, she said.
“You learn a lot about yourself,” Carson said. “You’re taken out of your comfort zone, possibly doing something you’ve never done before. These families are at their wits’ end, and it’s hard for them to ask for help, but they have nowhere to turn.
The first year, Carson said she worked at a trailer for a single mother of three who had cancer.
“All the windows were broken,” she said. “They had open holes or plastic over them. We replaced her rotting floors, fixed her porch roof so it had the right pitch, cleaned the charcoal dust off her cabinets and painted them, along with ... her living room and kitchen.”
But it was not the physical labor that left the biggest impression on Carson, nor the time she took to witness abject poverty in the Appalachian setting. Rather, the biggest impact came from the relationship built between the homeowner and the volunteers.
“The bonding that happens with the house and trailer owners and our group is truly spiritual,” she said. “By the end of the week, you don’t want to leave. You want to keep working on the house until it’s finished, but you can’t.”
One reason is funding. To send a person as a weeklong volunteer with the ASP costs UMC-Geneva about $600. That includes housing, food, a budget for supplies for each home project, the rental of vans and equipment and gas.
All in all, this year’s trip of 104 volunteers will cost about $60,000. Participants pay a portion, and the rest comes from a variety of fundraisers held throughout the year.
On May 18, the church’s largest fundraising effort – a barbecue dinner and silent auction – will be held at the Geneva Golf Club. There will be musical entertainment.
“We want the event to connect people to the mission,” said Keith Worthington, mission trip coordinator at UMC-Geneva. “We want it to be a typical relaxed southern dinner.”
But the evening may be all the relaxing that takes place for Worthington, as he readies his volunteers for the trip and works out the details of money, housing and planning.
The group will host car washes and has been selling donuts after Sunday services to raise funds.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges for me,” he said of raising funds. “I want our kids going to realize that you have to work for things like this. The people down there are struggling too, and I want our teens to take it seriously.”
The message volunteers are expected to bring home is as important as the hard work done in Tennessee, he said.
“If you come from a fairly affluent background, you’re going to connect to a very different environment in Appalachia,” he said. “But you don’t have to look too far under your nose to find people in very different circumstances right here in Kane County.
“It’s not just about that week. We want to inspire a service mindset and get folks to do something more when they’re at home. There is need everywhere.”