By OLIVIA POUST
As a kid who grew up in Delmar, I’ve had a pretty set lifestyle in almost every regard. My comfort zone has only been as big as I’ve allowed for it to expand, which has really only been in the Capital District. The summer before my junior year of high school, I participated in a week of service, but it was still local, primarily in Albany and Troy. It wasn’t until this summer that I took the step of leaving the region, and my comfort zone with it.
Appalachia Service Project, or ASP, is an organization that renovates homes in poverty-stricken areas of Appalachia. When my youth minister asked me if I would be interested in volunteering for a mission trip through ASP, I jumped at the idea, excited to finally help in areas other than where I was used to. I figured the level of poverty would be similar to what I’d experienced in Albany, just in a different setting.
Once we arrived in Wyoming County, W.Va, I realized how far off my original expectations had been. Even driving to ASP’s center for the first time, I saw poverty like I had never been a witness to before.
Over the course of a week, we worked on two homes, the first being that of a woman and her blind husband, along with their three little boys who were in kindergarten, first grade, and third grade. Before ASP started to work on the house, the floors had holes so big that stray cats were finding their way into the boys’ bedroom through them.
The three boys rank as the three happiest children that I’ve met in my entire life. Every Thursday night, ASP has a picnic for all of the families that they work with. The boys’ mom warned us ahead of time that they like piggy back rides and she was by no means exaggerating. Throughout the evening they’d hop on for a ride, alternating who would take them so they could scope out who had the best speed and stamina, maximizing their piggy-back ride experience.
No matter where you were in the house, “ASP” was written in crayon, whether it was on the walls, on post-its that were left various places, or even on the family’s truck. When the boys’ mom told them not to write on the truck, the oldest— who was the notorious crayon-vandal—replied that he wrote it because he wants to work for ASP when he’s older.
Later in the week, when we moved on to the second house, the atmosphere was completely different. This family had a husband and wife, and had four children, but only two were present when we were there. They also had pets, which was an automatic mood booster for our entire group. They had a hyperactive chihuahua who could Houdini his way out of their fenced in yard with ease, and a kitten so small that she could fit in the palm of my hand, who we decided to name Kat, as she was previously nameless.
The family told us about the hardships that they’d been facing, which had recently involved Child Protective Services, an issue that I had only ever heard about from the news. In the time I spent with the family, I saw how much love the parents had for their children, and how distraught they would have been if they lost them.
The second day at this house, my group was playing with the kids out in their front yard. One of my group members was showing the older of the two boys how to ride a bike, and the rest of us were sitting with the younger boy. After a few minutes, their mom came out to take them inside, because even though they were with us, she feared that the neighbors would call CPS on them again. She continuously apologized to us and said she hoped she wasn’t offending us, when all she was doing was trying not to have her babies taken from her.
Along with the struggle with CPS, the family also had to deal with not having electricity, since they couldn’t afford to pay for it. The father had been laid off and was on disability, so the sole income for the family came from the mother who was working at a nearby nursing home.
These two families deal with more every day than I’ve had to deal with in a lifetime, yet they showed so much love and happiness toward each other and us. The children growing up in these homes are living a childhood that is almost entirely different from how mine was, but that’s not at all a bad thing. Where I would have previously seen a house that smelled, had bugs, and was structurally unsound, they saw a home, and a pretty good one at that. Now having gone on this trip, I understand that while it’s not a perfect house, it’s what they have, and when it’s filled with as much love as it is, the negatives don’t matter as much.
The group I was with was the last of the season, so we were responsible for finishing the homes. By the end of the projects, the boys bedroom at the first house had a real, beautiful floor, the same home was insulated, and I left with an experience that changed my perspective forever.
ASP is a Christian organization, but it accepts volunteers no matter what their beliefs. To learn more about ASP and find out how to volunteer, visit www.asphome.org.
Olivia Poust is a senior at Bethlehem Central High School and is an intern at Spotlight News.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.