| Photo by Sara Janz

Oak Park’s Ascension and St. Giles parishes sent almost 200 teens and adults to Appalachia last month as part of the Appalachia Service Project (ASP), a national youth service organization that provides home repairs using volunteer labor. Both parishes have sponsored ASP trips for more than 20 years. 

“The ASP is a relationship ministry that does some construction on the side,” said Paul Kraft, who has led 13 Ascension trips. Chris Goetz, who organized St. Giles’ program, stepped up to lead the trip last year when it was in jeopardy of being discontinued. 

The St. Giles team worked in Knott County in eastern Kentucky, repairing homes devastated by last summer’s flooding. The Ascension team worked in Clay and Wyoming counties in West Virginia. The demographic profile of both areas is similar, with high unemployment rates and about a third of the residents living below the poverty line. 

Chris Goetz, far right, served as a St. Giles leader for the ASP trip | Photo by Sara Janz

“The ASP is a great experience for teens—for the spiritual, service and social justice aspects. They really get to know the families they are serving, many of whom are living on less than $1,500 a month. The experience is sometimes uncomfortable — but it’s not often that we can make such a great impact in a week,” said Goetz. 

Crews worked every day in local homes, painting, drywalling, roofing, flooring and doing basic construction projects. No construction skills are required as there are typically at least a few volunteers with experience. According to Kraft, they’re often “learning by doing.” 

The teens traditionally tackle their work with great purpose. Kraft recalls a previous trip when a crew insisted on staying well after 4:30 p.m. to complete a project — even though it meant missing the celebratory Friday evening pizza party. 

Melissa Cormack, Dylan Richard: Melissa Cormack and Dylan Richard built a porch at their worksite. | Provided

The volunteers returned to their respective overnight centers — the St. Giles teams stayed at a Baptist church/community center and at a local school, while the Ascension teams stayed at a middle school and the ASP’s permanent center — for clean up, dinner, and evening activities.

According to both Kraft and Goetz, the community engagement with local residents is typically the highlight of the trip and the component that ultimately transforms volunteers. 

“Every night we focus on culturally sensitive activities, bringing in local musicians to play or asking older residents to share their stories,” said Goetz.

During a previous trip, a local resident talked with the group about the history of coal mining in Appalachia, based on his experiences as well as those of his father and grandfather. 

“The kids got a real sense that the life of a coal miner isn’t easy. They realized that the rural poor are hard workers but sometimes the deck is stacked against them to a certain degree,” Kraft said.

Goetz describes an eye-opening activity in which everyone is given a fictitious life profile — participants whose profiles indicate that they are living with two parents, or have electricity, or running water, or access to the Internet are asked to step forward sequentially. 

“By the end of the exercise, the teens see how big the divide is between those whose life profiles included so many gifts — and those who don’t. They learn that people’s situations aren’t always of their own making — they’re often because of a lack of access to those things that most of our teens have been so lucky to have,” she said. 

This was Sam Gray’s (center) first ASP trip. Chris Goetz (far right) led the St. Giles trip again this year. | Provided

Kraft says seeing young people blossom during the week and take on leadership roles is what keeps him coming back to the ASP.

“It’s so rewarding to see their growth between their freshman year, when they’re saying they don’t want to use a drill, to their senior year when they’re jumping in and telling the adults what to do. Our teen leaders are responsible for monitoring the work site and making sure that the other teens are involved and pulling their weight and having a good experience. You just see them grow 2 inches from this experience,” Kraft said.  

Katie Kudlacz, now 33 and a researcher in pediatric neurology at Rush University Medical Center, participated in ASP as a student at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She now co-leads Ascension’s program with Kraft and her sister, Julie. 

“The ASP is a wonderful way for kids to step out of their comfort zones and learn how many people in our own country are living below the poverty line, who have no running water and have never had a warm bath,” Kudlacz said. 

The teen volunteers had a faithful mascot during the week. | Provided

Kudlacz recalls her first ASP trip, during which she worked in the home of a 15-year-old girl with one child and another on the way. Her boyfriend worked in the coal mines. The fact that the girl was about Kudlacz’s age and living on her own was shocking and humbling. 

“A lot of my faith comes from service. It warms my heart and feeds my soul. I can’t get enough of it. This experience helps me keep my faith alive,” she said. 

Josh Negron, a rising senior at St. Patrick’s High School, served as a teen leader for this year’s St. Giles trip.

“This experience means the world to me. It helps build social skills and enhances your faith. It opens your eyes to how much we have compared to so many others. And it’s great to help make other peoples’ lives better and have fun doing it,” Negron said.  

This summer was Sam Gray’s first experience with the ASP. A rising senior at OPRFHS, he plans to go again next year.

“This was the best week of my entire summer. The experience has motivated me to be more proactive about helping others in my own community. It made me realize that once you get to know people, you understand how much alike we all are,” Gray said. 

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