Wanderlust takes adolescent to W.V. service project

Posted June 9, 2009 3:43 p.m. EDT
Updated August 3, 2009 5:50 p.m. EDT

At some point, every young man finds himself restless and dissatisfied with the environment in which he spent his adolescence. Some cure their wanderlust by traversing Europe or distant corners of the world; others enlist in the military.

I chose a slightly different route. To answer my call for adventure, I found a job with the Appalachia Service Project and shipped off to Whitesville, W.V., for the summer.

Appalachia Service Project is a Methodist-based nonprofit organization that coordinates volunteer home repair and construction in the most impoverished regions of Appalachia, from Georgia to Kentucky. College students often apply for a staff position after having a transformative experience as a volunteer or to satisfy an unquenched desire for humanitarian work.

True to form, though, I applied—two weeks after the deadline had passed—because I was tired of working as a waiter. So now, through luck or coincidence or cruel irony, I am sitting at a desk in the Raleigh-Boone Technology Center in Whitesville, basking in the mountain sunlight, proudly serving ASP as Volunteer Coordinator for this branch.

There are four others on staff with me here, and we’ve all grown just-a-little-too-close in our first week together. Sharing half-inflated air mattresses in a facility teeming with bats, birds, bears and extremely friendly (intrusive) locals will do that.

But in terms of adventure, it’s everything I could have asked for. There is no cell phone service. There is dial-up Internet. Two of our three vehicles have already broken down. And we have eaten at one of the city’s three restaurants, Konnie’s Diner.

In a town of just over 500 people, with one Rite-Aid and two funeral homes, we are the most excitement they have seen in probably a very long time, strutting around in neon orange polos advertising salvation and free construction.

And then there are the families for whom we’ll be working. One is an older woman living alone who has been a fervent Christian for three weeks (though according to her, she still occasionally “slips up”), whose brother and mother recently passed away and whose walls are rotting from ceiling leaks. Another is a chipper grandmother watching over four beautiful blue-eyed granddaughters, because their mother is serving a second three-year stint in prison for drug abuse. They have a gaping hole in their roof and a collapsing porch underneath.

These families are the reason ASP exists: eccentric, sources of endless hilarity and frustration for the staffs, but all desperately in need and abundant in spirit. Even my disaffected 19-year-old heart has been touched by the love with which we are showered. I embarked on this quest of sorts out of selfish thrill-seeking; however, it is turning out that the thrills I seek are simple by-products of selflessness.

Somewhere, God is smirking.