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Warmer, Safer, Drier

Fairfield Fixer-Uppers in West Virginia––Senior Pilgrim Fellowship



Rory Smith, Carolyn Doonan, and Kathryn Ekstract get ready to repair and build at a home in Appalachia.

Each summer since 1978, local teens and adults step outside their comfort zone, and outside Fairfield County, to embark on a weeklong, life changing experience. Members of the Senior Pilgrim Fellowship (SPF) youth group at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church spend all year building their community of faith while preparing for the highly anticipated trip. One need not be a member of the church to participate, and all denominations are welcome. All that is required is an open mind and heart, and a desire to serve others in need.

The Appalachia Service Project (ASP) began some 10 years earlier in Kentucky by Reverend Glenn Evans, who decided to connect hard-working teens with some of the nation’s poorest communities. The motto would be “warmer, safer, drier.” What began in 1969 as 50 teens and adults volunteering to repair homes in one small town, has grown nationally to 16,231 volunteers working with 493 families across Appalachia in 2017. 

When Reverend Alida Ward was hired as the new pastor at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church, the importance of maintaining the ASP program was very clear. “When I arrived in 1989, it was a small program,” she explains, “maybe 30 to 40 kids.” Fast forward to June 2017, when five coach buses and eleven vans transported 206 Fairfield teens and 94 adult volunteers to three counties in West Virginia. They spent the next week installing insulation, repairing roofs, and working on any other necessary projects in homes across the region. With even more high schoolers registered to attend in 2018, ASP has become the crown jewel of the SPF program. 

Roni and Mike Widmer have volunteered for ten years, even before their own children were old enough to participate. “I just can’t imagine a year without ASP,” Roni says. “It grounds me. It’s where I feel most at ease and feel like I am being my true self.” Soon, the Widmer kids were joining in. “It was amazing to share in the experience of the week and to compare notes and perspectives,” she says. “I think Mike and I were both a little scared that the trip wouldn’t live up to the expectations we had set in talking about it for so long.” But when son Blake participated all four years of high school, and returned last year as a junior advisor, the same year his younger sister Devenny attended for the first time, their worries were allayed. “I think my heart is just a little bit bigger with every trip I take to
Appalachia.”

Katie Hinkle, a Fairfield Ludlowe senior, will be participating for the fourth time this June. “I always remember hearing about the big kids who went down to West Virginia, and my parents would always tell me about how one day that would be me,” she says. “That day came before I knew it.”  Katie says she is continually inspired by the “amazing leadership”  and other participants on the trip. “They are what truly makes the trip so unique each year and always make me want to come back.” Sam Hawley, a Fairfield Prep senior, is also preparing for his fourth ASP trip. “Prep’s motto ‘to be men for others’ helped inspire me,” he explains. “My mom also encouraged me because she knew about the program from when she was a kid, and never got the chance to go.” He believes the trip gives participants a better sense of humanity, and a better view of the world. His goal is to be “the longest ever to consecutively dedicate a week a year to ASP”.  “I hope I am still doing it when I retire!” 

Ward has high standards for her participants, and sets significant goals for the trip, but she says the main goal is letting people know that they are “capable of great things.” “Getting out of the bubble is important,” she explains. “ASP is a place that lets you accomplish so much and is life-changing for a lot of kids. And, it is life-changing for families to be comfortable in their own homes.” Ward’s personal impact also cannot  be ignored. “There wouldn’t be almost 300 people going on this trip now without Reverend Ward,” says Roni. “The spirit of the trip wouldn’t be the same without her,” she continues. “Alida sets the tone for everything, and it all trickles down. Every single kid, and every single adult on the trip loves her.” They also always looking for additional adult chaperones. 

The program, according to Ward, is about much more than just fixing houses. “ASP is a relationship ministry with housing on the side,” she explains. “The relationships formed are just as important as fixing a roof.” Roni calls Alida “the spiritual glue of the trip.” “Once you’ve opened your heart to the stories of the families you are helping, the love they are sharing with you...you realize there is something bigger than you.”


How they do it?
Each spring, a national team of college students review applications from families in Appalachia, make site visits, and assess the “achievability” of the projects. Come summer, volunteers from all over the country arrive at selected locations throughout Appalachia, and work begins. Meanwhile, Rev. Ward is hard at work in Fairfield organizing transportation, housing, meals, and work crews for her participants. They arrive and continue the projects where the prior groups left off. After the seven week program concludes, families have greatly improved living situations and have made dozens of new friends. For more information about volunteering for ASP, contact award@greenfieldhillchurch.com

 

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