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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

People keep asking, "How was your vacation?" Not an illogical question when one disappears from work for a week in summer, turns on the email auto response and changes the personal greeting on one's voice mail.

But it wasn't actually a vacation, and, no, I did not spend a week in rehab. It was a church service project. Since I don't actually go to church much, and I don't want to make like I'm sainted, I tell most people that my vacation was good but that I'm glad to be back.

That second part is true. Glad to be back. Back in the world where toilets come with walls and doors around them, and showers do, too. Back in the world where wi-fi works and my chair rocks gently as I watch the Sox in high definition.

Then again when the picture of our work crew, and our Kentucky family and, of course, Midnight the horse, came into my email yesterday afternoon, there was a longing for last week, the hard and the good work, the chance to stop jabbering about making the world better and to just help fix a wreck of a house trailer, make the walls connect to the floor, stuff insulation in and meet good people living hard lives.

There was also the picture emailed to me of our daughter Mariah, from her separate work crew leader. The subject line was "Mariah working hard." Yes, that intrigued me. And there she was with a power drill helping to hang plywood on the side of her family's house. "You got a trailer," she said to me after the first day of work. "We got a house, but ours tilts."

We were in Kentucky with a remarkable and giant group of teens and adults from Ascension. All part of the Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a decades-old effort that brings volunteers to the hills and mountains to fix homes. As someone on the trip noted, we weren't fancying up homes so people could live better. We were doing basic repairs so people could just stop the slide into unlivable conditions.

In our case we were replacing a rotting bedroom floor — taking it down to the joists — and installing a working bathtub and shower. Mariah's work crew was siding a 99-year-old home to make it weathertight. There were 13 other Ascension crews stretched across the hollows of Pike County, and another bunch of Oak Parkers working a couple of counties over.

I was there because Mariah was there. When my then-15-year-old kid, who suffers like most teens from chronic self-absorption, said last winter that she wanted to do ASP, I was on board. We've given her a proper liberal do-gooder upbringing. But till last week there hadn't been enough chances to actually do good.

The work was hard. It was hot. Conditions at the old school where we stayed were Spartan. But the people were amazing. The men of Ascension (plus one woman) were quietly inspiring. Warm, hard-working, funny. Great dads. The teens — heavily skewed toward girls — were up for having their eyes opened, for doing work they never contemplated. The ASP staff, all college students, blew me away with both their spirituality and their construction knowledge. And the Kentucky families who were generous enough to accept the help of out-of-towners were just like us — and entirely different.

Can't close without a shout-out to our crew. Kelsey, our teen leader, and Andrea, Dan, Maddie and Maggie. Then there is Bob Heilman, the captain of our determined effort. An architect by trade, I have never met a more able, patient, problem-solving person. Give this guy a circular saw and a crowbar and he can change the world, one decrepit trailer at a time.

And, Mariah, thank you.

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

Reader Comments

16 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Tom Carraher from Oak Park  

Posted: August 3rd, 2012 4:54 PM

Of course there is a better use of the money,always is. None of this should take away from the effort put forth last week. Do some of these kids do this trip to pad their resumes for college, no doubt.They could have slept in til noon and hit the beach that week but they gave back. My daughter said it was her best week of the year and is demanding I go again next year. Despite the snafus from a less than stellar ASP staff, raking in a cool $4500 for 10 weeks in hellish conditions,I'm going back.

Unfortunately  

Posted: August 3rd, 2012 3:52 PM

I "choose" to give most of my charitable money to Misericordia and Little City. The people served there are challenged in providing for themselves. As I was recently told by a volunteer with ASP - many of the kids on the trip view it as "punching a ticket" for their college applications. I have no idea if that is true. Money to help others is finite and it is obvious that my "teach someone to fish" comment upset some people with ASP experience. Didn't mean to personally offend. Good luck to ASP!

Turtle  

Posted: August 3rd, 2012 3:22 PM

(continued) The argument also always comes up, "Why didn't you just help people closer to home in Chicago?" Many people do this, so it is happening. However, part of the experience is visiting a new area and staying in school gyms, bunkhouses,etc. I don't give money to all local charities, either. I choose to help others that do not live close by. My choice. So, @Unfortunately, I hope you are giving money to help others or choosing to do the labor yourself. Your choice...just do something.

Turtle  

Posted: August 3rd, 2012 3:17 PM

It's a shame that a group of people trying to help others is blasted for not just sending a check to a local contractor in KY. True, that may work, but what does it teach? That simply paying the bill is enough? While it may seem inefficient to take young people to do hand-on work, it is opening their eyes to the plight of others. When we have done similar work, our students have always had an experience that took them beyond their small little worlds while doing meaningful work for someone else.

Unfortunately  

Posted: August 2nd, 2012 3:46 PM

Pike County, KY is, fortunately, NOT the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Unemployment Rate in Pike County is under 10%: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/united-states/unemployment-rate-in-pike-county-ky-percent-m-nsa-fed-data.html. Per capita income in Pike County is $29,024: http://www.workforcekentucky.ky.gov/cgi/databrowsing/localAreaProfileQSResults.asp?selectedarea=PIKE&selectedindex=98&menuChoice=localAreaPro&state=true&geogArea=2104000195&countyName=. Translated: there are jobs in Pike County.

Raccoon  

Posted: August 2nd, 2012 7:47 AM

Dan, thank you for helping. We spend a week of "vacation" every year volunteering on Pine Ridge Reservation, building bunkbeds for children without beds and outhouses for those without plumbing. Unemployment is 80 to 90% out there. From our Rez experience and what we saw in just returning from KY and WV, if we trained the residents for a job in an area where there are no jobs, you are just training a carpenter who is still putting his children to bed hungry. Thanks for the good work.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 6:57 PM

Unfortunately, good questions. Once again, you may want to take the next trip with the group and get those answers for us who want to know if there is a way that volunteers and donations can better serve people closer to home. Ask Dan when the next trip is, and you may want to pack some powder. It seems washing was not the easiest and if you get a rash on your ass, you will appreciate the baby powder.

Unfortunately  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 5:24 PM

@Q. I wrote "the intent is good" in my last post and "ASP is about the volunteers" in my first post, but I am really questioning if perhaps there aren't better choices for ALL parties with the dollars spent? For instance, wouldn't it be much cheaper to do the same work in Chicagoland? Instead of spending a lot of time on a bus traveling to and from Appalachia, couldn't the volunteers use that time locally? And the money not spent on travel could go toward more "good deeds" in Appalachia?

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 4:16 PM

Unfortunately, why don't you search for the answers. You may even want to take a trip with the group next time and you can get a better idea of how you can make it work. There is nothing wrong with taking a youngster and let them feel good about themselves with helping others.

Unfortunately  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 4:12 PM

BTW, if anyone wishes to verify whether or not my comment regarding "millions of dollars spent..." was incorrect, check out this ASP site: http://resources.servicenetwork.com/AppServ/Financial/ASP-Audit-2011.pdf. Mr. Bracco, you are therefore quite mistaken when you wrote "trust me when I say that you vastly overstate the amount of actual dollars donated to this effort." I repeat, why can't this money be used to provide jobs AND better housing in Appalachia? The intent is good, but....?

Unfortunately  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 1:51 PM

@M Bracco, thanks for the "charity" in your return, where you blasphemously use His name to insult. I understand that "the work" is donated, but this is ASP - http://www.asphome.org/ - and it is a large organization which has continuous buses moving thru Appalachia. I'm sure the residents appreciate how you've insulted them ("cultural and other issues"), but give someone a fish or teach someone to fish? Or do you believe the "locals" are too stupid for this? Why not "bus" to South Side?

Marty Bracco from Oak Park  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 12:15 PM

Unfortunately, since it's clear you've never actually been on an ASP trip, I'll be charitable in my response. There are many cultural & other issues in these locations of which you aren't aware that preclude locals from doing this work. Also, trust me when I say that you vastly overstate the amount of actual dollars donated to this effort. What is donated is mostly time & materials. As in many of your posts, you know not of what you speak. God bless you anyway. May He grant you wisdom.

Unfortunately  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 11:33 AM

It has always been my opinion that ASP is about the volunteers and not Appalachian residents. For instance, imo, wouldn't it make A LOT more sense to donate the millions of dollars spent to transport, feed, etc. the "teens" from across the the US to local contractors in Appalachia who could then hire local tradesman and unskilled laborers to do this work? I'm guessing that they're more skilled than 16-yr-old kids and the impoverished/unemployed area residents would love the jobs.

J.Martin Konecki  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 10:24 AM

Your email auto response was working in overdrive on Face Book. Thanks for all you did in representing the Catholics of Oak Park. Ascension should be proud.

Marty Bracco from Oak Park  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 9:42 AM

Dan, thanks for nicely articulating our week in Kentucky. As I've mentioned to others, world events of the last few weeks (Aurora, Penn State, every Chicago weekend) had challenged my natural optimism. The efforts of these great teens, my 15-yr old son included (plus their great parents) reinforces my belief that there is infinitely more good out there than bad, & that this generation will figure out better ways to move us all forward. The kids are alright!

Bob Kane from oak park  

Posted: August 1st, 2012 9:27 AM

Dan, Sign up starts in September for next year so start practicing your singing.

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