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.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...

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