Family Volunteer Vacation: The Adventure Begins

View from the New River Gorge Bridge

My kids are not happy. I have just dropped the bomb:  there is no cell service in Beards Fork, West Virginia, where we will be spending the week with Global Volunteers (if you’re new here, you can read about where we went and why in this post.)

My husband is not happy.  He has supported my wish, to take a domestic family volunteer vacation for my 50th birthday, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t rather I’d  have wanted to celebrate by sipping cocktails surfside at a luxurious Caribbean resort.

The only one who is happy, is me. The only one who thinks a week volunteering in Appalachia through Global Volunteers is going to be a life changing, interesting, rewarding — even fun experience, is me.

The arrival at Charleston airport in West Virginia is promising. Joe, the Global Volunteer Team leader who comes to pick us up couldn’t be lovelier.  Friendly, warm, not fakey-fake host-y, but genuinely kind.  Kathryn, the local contact at the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS), where we will be volunteering our time for the week, is beautiful, and funny, has a real West Virginia twang that charms me from the moment I hear it.

And then we arrive at SALS, where we will live and work with Joe and the other volunteer family (only one other family has signed on) for the week.

Suddenly, I’m not so happy.


Home Sweet Home for a Week

I had been told we’d be staying in a dorm with four to a room in bunk beds, and shared baths down the hall.  So I wasn’t expecting luxury.  I also wasn’t expecting what it was: really, truly dirty.  Not dirty as in messy and cluttered.  Dirty as in mud encrusted floors, old crumpled tissues under the beds, who knows what coating the one-working shower in the women’s bathroom, and a sheet pan full of calcified brownies, likely from the last group of volunteers — six months ago! – still in the oven.

I swept, I wiped, I mopped.  And when the other family arrived (more about them later) it was looking a bit more habitable. We had an introductory meeting, ate a made-by-me pasta dinner, and with the new (Thank you Joe and Kathryn) pillows and towels they had for us,  made ourselves felt OK about settling in.

Our Volunteer Home Away from Home

Every day on a Global Volunteers trip begins with a morning meeting.  Our first day, it was a long one,  all about getting to know the area and getting to know each other.  The other family, currently living in Illinois, and there with their 19 year old MIT undergrad daughter, was fantastic.  Funny, easy going, and best of all: handy. (We’re Jews from NY. Not. Handy. A friend asked me if I was planning on bringing my super along.)

After a make-your-own breakfast (we’d driven 30 minutes to the nearest Wal Mart to do some grocery shopping the night before) Joe led a discussions about our goals for the week, asking us to think about what we were

Some of our Group Goals

Some of our Group Goals

doing there, really, and to discuss what made a good team, and how to become one.  We put our ideas on index cards, which Joe put into categories, and left up on the wall for the week.  Later in the week we’d check back  to see if our goals were met, and if we’d really become a team.

After that exercise (which was team building in itself), we drove to nearby (well, 50 minutes or so)   Tamarack, a beautiful cultural center with sweeping views of the mountains.  There, we saw the high level of craftsmanship in the area – handblown glass, amazing woodwork, and more.  And we heard local musicians.  My daughter, in her first aha moment of the trip told me “I guess I had preconceived notions about what it would be like.  I thought the crafts and music would be bad…but it was all really good.”  Yep.

We also visited  the New River Gorge Bridge,– the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and the third highest in the United States. Plus  it was beautiful.

Then we learned more about why we were there: Nearly one in five (17.9%) of West Virginians live below the poverty level, according to 2012 Census data. Nearly one in 10 are living in extreme poverty, with incomes less than half the poverty level — that’s less than $11,775 for a family of four.  Where we were, Beards Fork, most of the population was older, and on public assistance.  An old Coal Camp (a group of uninsulated houses built for temporary coal miner housing in the 1940s)  in a Hollow (or holler, as they say) at the end of the one-lane, two-way, largely unpaved road, Beards Fork has managed to stay around despite the mine  having been closed for decades.

But times are tough.

Our group was the 94th to come through Beards Fork to volunteer at SALS – the Southern Appalachian Labor School.  SALS runs after school programs, summer programs for kids, and – like the name indicates -teaches job skills to local people.  Their mission, according to their website, is to provide “education, research, and linkages for working class and disenfranchised peoples in order to promote understanding, empowerment, and change”. Our job was to help rebuild their crumbing greenhouse, and help them fix up the  long abandoned elementary school in a nearby town (again, about 40 minutes away)  to make way for a radio station, internet cafe, housing for the homeless, space for receptions and celebrations, and more. Also, to help their after schoolers with their homework — or just shoot some hoops.

The idea was to be there for them…manual labor aside.  And after a day of visiting the area, and hearing about the hardships there, we headed back to our dorm, which suddenly seemed less..well, yucky.

Perspectives were already changing.

Day two, the real work would begin.


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