By Anne Farrell
DeWITT — For years, I’ve heard tales of the annual St. Joe’s youth group service trip to Kentucky from my nieces, nephew and daughters. Led by Youth Minister Pat Sheil of St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt, a team of local youths travel each summer to David, Ky., to participate in the St. Vincent’s Mission home repair program.
Partly out of curiosity and a wish to help those less fortunate, but predominantly driven by a desire to spend a rare, precious week away from home with my two teenage daughters, I offered to chaperone this year. It’s an experience I’ll never regret and never forget.
On Sunday, July 18, we met at St. Joe’s at 5:30 a.m. and departed on the 12-hour, 631-mile trek to the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky. Our group consisted of three college students, 10 high-schoolers and five adults. Trading seats in our three vehicles at each rest and fueling stop allowed the youth and grownups to become acquainted during the journey.
We were comfortably housed during our stay at the Mount Tabor Benedictine Sisters’ guest home on the grounds of their monastery in Mount Tabor, just a 20-minute winding, narrow, mountain-road drive from the mission itself. The home repair program is one part of the mission’s outreach to area people who are in need of assistance due to poverty, illness, substance abuse, unemployment, disability, fire or other circumstances. In our case, we were asked to help renovate and rebuild a trailer for a young, single mother who has colon cancer.
The three-bedroom trailer was insanely small by DeWitt standards and had recently been placed in a clearing accessible on a rutted, dirt lane in a mountain hollow near Prestonburg. Our companions at the site were four unhappy dogs and dozens of intimidating red wasps. We were fortunate to be near a convenience store whose proprietors allowed our amateur carpentry crew to run electricity for our power tools via extension cords from their store to our work site. (The females of our group were equally grateful that the owners shared their restroom.)
Pat Sheil told me that her goal for this service trip is to empower young people to realize that they have the ability and the obligation to give of their time and talent to those less fortunate. Pat’s husband, Deacon Mike Sheil, joined us midweek, and in a prayer before lunch one hot, sticky day, asked us to remember those who have no food to eat. He reminded our group of the Catholic tradition of service to the poor. As we hammered, dug, sawed, lifted, shingled and sweated during the week, in the back of each of our minds were the young mom and her two children who will hopefully soon be able to move into this new home of their own up a muddy lane in eastern Kentucky.
I was inspired by a clever, humble, resourceful 67-year-old Alaskan named Elmer Simurdak, who dedicates several months each year to organizing the home repair projects for St. Vincent’s Mission. Elmer engineered the projects, bought the lumber and supplies, delivered the appropriate tools and coordinated the schedule at three simultaneous work sites that week. He even shared our living quarters and meals and graced us with his wit, humor, homemade crossword puzzles and example of Christian living.
There were a few grumbles (mostly from adults) about the heat, muscle aches, lack of cell service and fatigue, but the teenagers worked tirelessly and enthusiastically. Their cheerful exuberance reminded all of us to have a better attitude about our labors and to work together, embracing one another’s gifts and skill levels without judgment. Elmer said he’s learned to assign meaningful renovations (not just cosmetic improvements) to the children and to set goals that they can complete in one week so they have a feeling of accomplishment. Seeing what these youth could do with a little instruction and the freedom to try made me realize that we should raise our expectations and allow more opportunities for our children to “learn by doing” back home.
It’s hard to say who benefitted the most from this summer service trip. Surely, the progress we made on fixing the roof, trailer skirting, a floor, and two ceilings will make a difference to the young family who occupies the home. The work our youths did at the David Appalachian Crafts Store and at the Mission was important to Sister Kathleen Weigand and the staff there. But the greatest beneficiaries were probably the 18 Iowans who bonded as one family, spent seven days focused on others’ needs, and pooled our efforts and resources to make a difference in the world.
(Anne Farrell, and her daughters, Katie and Erin Dorpinghaus, live in DeWitt and are members of St. Joseph’s Parish. All three participated in the parish’s annual service trip to Kentucky last month.)