After road tripping for two days (approximately 17 hours) in a van my fellow Portsmaouth Abbey School mates, the scenery suddenly changed. We were no longer surrounded by the sea on Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island, nor in the suburban sprawl of Westchester County, my home.
By Hadley Matthews
After road tripping for two days (approximately 17 hours) in a van my fellow Portsmouth Abbey School mates, the scenery suddenly changed. We were no longer surrounded by the sea on Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island, nor in the suburban sprawl of Westchester County, my home. Green fields seemed to go on for miles, billboards became sparse, and mountains replaced buildings; we had made it to the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky.
For the second half of our spring break, 23 Portsmouth Abbey students trekked along with 8 teacher and parent chaperones to the small town of Chavies, located in Perry County, Kentucky to participate in the Appalachia Service Project. Tex Evans created the Appalachia Service Project in 1969 with a goal to get young people involved with helping the poor living in the Appalachian Mountains. ASP now has more than 30 centers, where groups from churches, schools or other volunteer organizations, can stay and participate in construction projects for poor families.
After settling into our dormitory-style center, we were assigned to work groups and construction projects for the week. From what I experienced, ASP is not for the faint of heart: projects included installing tin underpinnings to double wide trailer homes, installing a 140-foot long wheelchair ramp, fixing a back deck, and installing a new tin roof. These projects involved getting dirty, working hard, and using power tools.
The five days we spent in Kentucky had a structured schedule that ensured we would complete our projects by the end of the week. We awoke to Bluegrass music at 7 a.m. every day, and had breakfast shortly after. By 9 a.m. we had to be fully dressed for work (outfits included flannel shirts, jeans, bandanas, and the occasional overalls), and had to make sure that our vans were packed with all the necessary tools and supplies to complete our projects. The mountain roads in Chavies are extremely steep. Our van, loaded with students and supplies would struggle along dirt roads and crawl up the driveway to our assigned project house. We would greet our family with a quick “good morning,” and immediately get to work – not stopping until 4:30 p.m. Once we returned to the ASP center, we were responsible for completing more chores, like cleaning the hallways or setting up for dinner.
Looking out the van window as we drove to the worksite each morning, I realized that Kentucky was a universe completely different and removed from our comfortable Rye “bubble;” entire families lived in incredibly tiny houses (most of them were nearly shacks) precariously perched at the top of large mountains in the woods, a majority of the roads were dirt, and there seemed to be garbage everywhere. The man we worked for had built his house himself, which explained the lack of insulation and the poor quality of the roof we needed to repair. What really struck me, was the amount of pride these families had: however small or in need of repair, they were proud of their houses, and the men of the family were especially sheepish and even slightly embarrassed that they needed our help.
After a long first day, our ASP center leaders gave us some information about the Chavies community. The shocking facts remain vivid in my mind. Perry County is the 77th poorest county in America. The median household income in 2010 for Perry County came in at $31,151, while the average income for the United States is $51,425. Only 69% of Perry County High School students graduate, where nationally the graduation rate rounds off at 84.6%. What really shocked me was that of those who did graduate high school, only 20% attend college; many start at an early age working in the coal mining industry, which dominates Perry County.
Every day we spent in Kentucky was difficult for a girl used to the comforts of the suburbs which I took for granted: I wasn’t used to working with power tools, getting dirty, or taking perpetually cold showers. This trip showed me that I am not cut out to work in the construction industry! Although it was rough, ASP showed me something very important: a new perspective of gratitude. Upon my return home, I became newly grateful for the roof over my head, the meals my mother prepared, and the hot showers we had. Kentucky showed me that I ought to be grateful for the small things that make my life comfortable, especially after seeing people attempting to live without these “necessities.” The next time you, or your spouse, or children complain about not getting what they want, or their life in Rye, remind them of those living in Chavies, Kentucky, a town with a population of 422 people, and you might hear less griping.