Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

They left on Oct. 7, 2018, the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary — known for centuries as Our Lady of Victory — the patron saint of West Virginia.

That Sunday, 72 parishioners from St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake, embarked on a week-long mission trip to Wyoming County, West Virginia. The volunteers had signed on for a week of repairing homes as part of the Appalachia Service Project (ASP), not quite sure what to expect. 

What they found was a chance to help their next-state neighbors, an opportunity to strengthen their own parish community and a new appreciation for Grape Kool-Aid pie.

Father Brian Rafferty, pastor of St. Stephen, Martyr, said he felt the time was ripe for the parish to offer an adult mission trip. The parish has offered youth mission opportunities for years, and, as the parish has grown, more parishioners have become involved in social justice ministries such as CAST (Chesapeake Area Shelter Team). 

“I thought it was time for us to look beyond the borders of the parish — beyond the borders of Chesapeake,” Father Rafferty said.  

When Father Brian Rafferty, pastor of St. Stephen, Martyr Parish, Chesapeake, was unable to join parishioners on their October mission trip, they made a cardboard “Flat Father Brian” which they took to the site so he could be with them in spirit. (Photo/Carol Ehrbar)

The parish formed a committee, asked advice from the diocese’s office of social ministries and settled on the Appalachia Service Project, a ministry founded by Methodist minister Rev. Glenn “Tex” Evans in 1969.

  “Our mantra is that we make homes safer, warmer and drier. We accept people right where they are, just the way they are,” said Maggie DeWeese, volunteer coordinator at ASP’s Guyan Valley Center, where the St. Stephen parishioners stayed for the week. “We make emergency repairs, we do foundations, floors, roofs — we do it all.”

Since 1969, more than 390,000 ASP volunteers have repaired 17,866 homes. Local residents apply to the center for consideration. The ASP team reviews each application, ascertaining whether there are government agencies that might be able to help and whether the center can efficiently serve the household in question before candidates are approved. 

“We were hoping it would be an eye-opening experience for the parish,” said St. Stephen parishioner Carol Ehrbar, who organized the trip.  “You don’t have to go overseas or spend lots of money to make a difference — you can drive six hours away and see some of the worst poverty in the nation.”

Parishioner AJ Kelleher said she decided to volunteer with ASP because she had long been interested in social justice issues and had made several trips to Haiti. 

“There are advantages to going someplace like Haiti, where people really have very few other safety nets, whereas in West Virginia, there are some organizations to help,” she said. “But there is extreme poverty in our own nation, and with the Appalachia Service Project, you have the opportunity to be part of an organization that knows the culture, that knows how to cope with problems, that knows how best to be productive.” 

Packing the house

In many ways, it was to be a tale of two Virginias, as members of the large, suburban parish located in the southeast corner of Virginia — 25 miles from the Atlantic and eight miles from the North Carolina line — headed for rural, mountainous Wyoming County, a community where the number of people living in poverty approaches 25 percent. 

Corralling a large number of adults with jobs, children and responsibilities proved to be a challenge. Over the course of the year, 73 people had to drop out of the program. Fortunately, the parish had a waiting list for the trip, so others filled the available spots. Father Rafferty had planned to go on the trip but due to a parish event stayed in Chesapeake. 

In the end, the parish brought 72 volunteers and, so that Father Rafferty would be with the team in spirit, they afforded a cardboard “Flat Father Brian” a place of honor on the journey.

The Guyan Valley Center can house 77 volunteers. Often several smaller church, school and service groups are slotted together to fill the center to capacity. St. Stephen brought enough to fill the house, forming 11 crews of six to seven people each. 

Ehrbar explained that before setting off, volunteers filled out surveys, indicating their skill levels. 

“We had some who were very experienced, some who had some experience and some who said, ‘I can paint,’” she said.  

“Or ‘I take instruction well,’” added Kelleher with a laugh. 

Volunteers paid $350 to participate in the program. The fee included room and board, meals and building materials needed for repair projects. ASP also receives funds from private donors and from a few grants. 

House warming, heart warming

The ASP staff gives each site a code name such as AquaSox, Fire Frogs and Rumble Ponies so families’ surnames are not used and their privacy is protected. Jobs not finished by one crew are resumed the next week by another. 

PJ O’Hare and Kelleher worked together on a site code-named Fightin’ Phils, the home of a woman and her two sons, ages 10 and 5. The woman’s husband was living elsewhere to be closer to where he could find work. 

The crew enclosed gaps between the walls and roof and around windows, put up siding, hung doors, and painted walls and ceilings. 

“The homeowner worked right alongside us the whole time,” O’Hare said. 

“She was so vested in the house and so excited to get things done,” Kelleher said. “We really had to struggle — we wanted to finish, to get the work done, but, at the same time, we wanted to take our time, we wanted her to be happy.” 

Working on a site for six to seven hours a day allowed volunteers time to get to know the families. Building those relationships is an important part of the ministry, volunteers said.  

“She was there, her parents came by and her husband’s parents came by. Her mother brought us coffee every day. We were all really aware of how humbling it must be for the homeowner — how would anyone feel to have people come in, traipsing through your house and changing things?” Kelleher said. 

Ehrbar and parishioner Denny Hejlik worked on a home, code-named Fire Frogs, that was in worse repair. 

The front stoop of the family’s trailer had rotted out to the extent that they had stopped using the front door. Many of the floors were soft with rot, and the house had no heating system. The family had been using a woodstove until the flue fell out. Then, they tried setting up an electric heater, but faulty wiring caused the cord to melt. 

The trailer was home to a woman and her husband, their nephew, and his wife and their adult son. 

“Everyone in the family was extremely ill. The woman had had a stroke, the husband had black lung. There was not room for all of us to work. So, some of us spent a lot of time talking to the family,” Ehrbar said. 

The couple had also recently lost their daughter. 

“The air of depression was very heavy in that house,” Ehrbar said. “Mostly, they wanted someone to talk to, to talk to somebody new.” 

Erhbar and Hejlik said that although Ethel, the matriarch of the family, was clearly happy for the help, she seemed a bit shy at times about the stream of volunteers working inside and outside the home. 

“An important part the women played in the ministry was building relationships with the women in the houses,” Hejlik said. “By the end of the week Ethel began to go ahead and talk to the guys. She began to show me some of the other things that were wrong with the house.” 

Hejlik said he was touched by how grateful the family was, even for what didn’t seem like a job well done. He recounted an incident in which the nephew of the family saw the new subflooring installed, replete with hundreds of screws, and assumed that it was the finished product. 

“Yeah, um, we saw all of those screws. I guess that floor isn’t going anywhere,” the nephew had said diplomatically. 

The team hastened to assure him that what he had seen was the subflooring and that it would be covered with laminate. 

When the front porch was repaired, other volunteers went through some of the family’s things, setting the porch up with a few nice chairs and a potted palm. 

  “They had not been out that front door in two years. They were so excited just to be able to step out the door. There were tears,” Ehrbar said. 

On Thursday night, the ASP staff held a picnic for all of the volunteers and the families being served. The Fire Frogs team did not think their introverted family would attend, “but they showed up,” Ehrbar said. “We were surprised.” 

ASP provided hot dogs, hamburgers and sides dishes, and many of the families served brought a range of desserts, including a Grape Kool-Aid pie, the memory of which drew rave reviews from the volunteers. 

“It really was good,” Hejlik said. 

Togetherness

O’Hare and Kelleher said the mission trip experience also worked to draw the parish community together. 

Literally. 

  “The biggest surprise was when we opened our bedroom doors and saw where we were sleeping,” O’Hare said. 

The adults had a chance to relive their childhood days at summer camp, complete with bunk beds. 

“We were packed in like sardines,” Kelleher agreed. “But the second surprise was — and this is what I loved — it all worked out.” 

“There was no one on the trip who knew everyone. Like Father Brian says, there are five different congregations here because there are five different Masses,” Ehrbar said. 

A week of working together, often in intense circumstances, helped to forge lasting relationships among members of the large parish community, she said.  

The team experienced heat and cold and then two solid days of drenching rain. A cold began to circulate through the group and, due to the close living conditions, spread rapidly. 

By the end of the week, even cardboard “Flat Father Brian” was wilting at the edges, looking decidedly worse for wear. 

“As the week went along, people got tired, and everything started to hurt, but what I saw is—people actually got stronger,” Hejlik said. “To me that was nothing more than the Holy Spirit, giving everyone grace and pushing everyone along. I never saw anyone get discouraged or want to quit; you could really see the Holy Spirt at work.” 

Apropos of a tale of the two Virginias, it was the best of times, and sometimes, the most challenging of times. 

But the volunteers agreed they would do it again. 

“I really want to go back. I’d love to see the house we worked on once it’s all finished,” Kelleher said. 

“Everyone I spoke to said that they wanted to make the trip again next year,” Ehrbar said. “It was heart-warming and heart-wrenching all at the same time.”