It is interesting to hear people’s reactions after informing them about the fall break you spent volunteering in Appalachia through the Center for Social Concern’s popular Appalachian seminar program.
On Monday afternoon, one of the dining hall’s greeters asked me what I did over break. When I told him I spent my week in Welch, West Virginia, he immediately noted how generous it was of us to “give up” our breaks in order to help the Appalachian community. I responded that I did not see it as sacrificing anything; I enjoyed every minute of the trip—from the endless car games during our 10 hour drive to cleaning spider-filled rooms in old buildings. Repairing gutters on a church, performing some yard work, working in a thrift shop—the tasks we completed were helpful, yes, but far from life-changing for any of the community members. We, on the other hand, learned many lessons.
The seminar is designed to give students the opportunity to learn about the Appalachian region and then immerse themselves in a community to directly serve the people and experience the culture of the area firsthand. I found the classes before the immersion informative and helpful in preparing myself for the trip, but nothing can compare to learning about the region from the locals.
In Welch, nearly 70 percent of the babies are immediately placed into foster care, almost 10 percent of the girls in the local high school are pregnant, and drug abuse and prostitution are prevalent problems. With these staggering statistics, it is not surprising that the youth often lack positive role models in their lives. The Community Crossing, Inc—a non-profit organization in the Welch community—welcomed us into their family for the week and showed us how they work to make a difference in the area. Robert Diaz, one of the youth ministers, was the epitome of a faithful, genuine leader. Overcoming a troubled adolescence, Robert now works with high school boys from Welch in an afterschool program, teaching them how to be respectful, responsible men and providing a positive channel for their frustration and energy.
Further reflection on the trip only makes me more appreciative of the opportunity I had to both witness the great need of the Appalachian region, see the beauty of the mountainous area, and witness the pride the inhabitants have in their hometown. Each person we met exuded genuine happiness, even in light of the dismal economic conditions. Seeing the happiness these people gained from pursuing their passions and enjoying the simpler things in life put many of my “problems” in perspective. Few teenagers from Appalachia even consider attending college; we are blessed to be studying at an incredible university, and should be wary of our complaints about petty things like homework or missing the latest episode of Gossip Girl for a meeting.
I encourage all students to take advantage of this unique service experience at least once in their time at Notre Dame; it will only change you for the better. With the help of The Community Crossing, Inc, and some incredible group members, I was able to enter into the Appalachian experience with open arms, open eyes, and an open heart.
Ellen Roof is a sophomore majoring in business and psychology. Contact her at email@example.com, especially if you are seeking someone with whom you can rave about Ta