All Hands on Deck at FCC
Service trips have returned at the First Congregational Church (FCC) as a group of volunteers recently spent seven days helping build homes in Appalachia in partnership with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) a nonprofit dedicated to housing assistance for the residents of the region. Volunteers from FCC assisted with installing siding, flooring, roofing, and other projects.
The church has participated in many service trips in the past, but pandemic restrictions had canceled or severely curtailed recent trips. This year the group traveled to the small town of Man, West Virginia in the heart of coal country.
“Last year was the first time in a while that the church has undertaken one of these trips. My husband Todd, who is a Senior Minister at the Church and another parent from our congregation took seven kids last year, so we were hoping we could double that this year, and ending up having to cut if off at 35 people because the logistics couldn’t handle anymore,” said FCC Pastor Sarah Vetter. “So, we were very happy about the response. It grew really quickly, but it was wonderful.”
Vetter said the trip was an incredible experience for her and the church as they were able to put their beliefs into practice. Though many religious institutions label these efforts as missions, Vetter said the FCC prefers to call them field trips.
There were no hotels or motels for the group. After long days in the sun, they came back and slept on the floor of the local high school and even had to work around a small COVID outbreak among the crew, but it was all just in a day’s work, according to Vetter.
“They start blaring music at 7 a.m. to wake everybody up, and then there is a morning devotion to ground people for the day...Then we are all sent out to different places to begin the day,” said Vetter. “Our group worked on insulating and siding a trailer home all week. Another group worked on rebuilding a huge deck that had rotted out, right on the side of a mountain. Another group worked on building a handicap accessible ramp for a resident, and another group ripped up five layers of rotted flooring and laid down a new laminate floor, and another group put on a whole new roof for someone.”
Vetter said the trip was a changing opportunity for both her and the young members of the church, as they not only put their mission into practice, but were able to interact and learn with people from a wide array of backgrounds and beliefs.
Partnering with the ASP, whose mission statement is making homes warmer, safer and drier for those in need, was also an incredible collaboration, according to Vetter. The ASP partners residents with organizations like the FCC and they also assist with the logistics of food and lodging, but Vetter and the team were basically left on their own when it came to how and what to do for the individual projects, which is also an aspect of ASP’s mission.
“It was really crazy because I do not have any construction experience and I am trying to leaf this work group. When we got there they were talking about mitre cuts and all these other terms that I had no idea what they were talking about. But they give us a spiral bound manual to look up any questions. It’s all about how to get the most done with the least resources,” said Vetter. “Willing hands and willing hearts are the resources that are most abundant, so we just jump in and do our best. It was amazing, and by the end of the week we got all the insulation in and a good part of the siding up too. It is amazing to see these youths. One kid picked up a drill for the first time in his life and by the end of the week he had put up a whole wall of siding by himself. It was great to see what we could do and accomplish together just because we said yes.”
Vetter said there were many factors that went into choosing Appalachia as the area to help, but the experience of assisting their neighbors just a few states away was important to the group.
“The need is really great here in our own backyard, so to speak. To realize and become aware, especially for our young people, that in our own country just a day’s drive away there are people who simply can’t afford to insulate their homes, and have to live in unsafe homes,” Vetter said.
The group was centered in an area of West Virginia in Logan County.
‘They work in four States in Appalachia and gather to get boots on the ground to help fix up homes. They work in some of the poorest counties in the United States,” said Vetter. “We were in Logan County West Virginia…and so they host us and send us to the work sites.”
According to Vetter, the response from locals to volunteers and to the ASP was unexpected. The people of Appalachia have a long tradition of being proud and leery of outsiders, but Vetter said, everyone they met was welcoming and expressed gratitude for the help that volunteers provide.
“They were incredibly receptive. They would share life stories with and talk about what it is like to live there,” said Vetter. “This is an area where coal drove the economy and now there is very little work. But these people have had these homes for generations and they’ve lived there for generations, but it is extremely hard to find livable wages. Almost everywhere we went when we were wearing our ASP T-Shirts or hear our accents…they would say-’Are you with Appalachia Service Project? And when we said ‘yes’, they would say-’we love you guys…thank you so much’. So there is a great reputation that ASP has there for doing such important work for the community. The homeowners were really kind of partners in the whole project so it was an amazing experience.”
According to Vetter, everyone on the trip took away different lessons, but they also shared a unique experience that enhanced their commitment to helping others and to placing service above self.
“I think especially for the youth, they discovered a resiliency in themselves, and an ability to be so far out of their comfort zones. We were sleeping packed together on a high school floor, very little sleep actually, long hot days doing work that none of us were very familiar with…being told you are putting a roof on, when you’ve never even been on a roof. Going from a position of the overwhelming proposition of it all, and then realizing ‘Look, together we did all this and we did a really good job, we met new people and learned about a whole other part of the country-that is special,” Vetter said. “For me reenforcing that sense of what god can do with willing spirits, and take yourself out of the center of your concerns…it was incredible to see how much you can get done. It’s cliché but I heard kids says, we came down to give and we received far more than we gave.”
According to Vetter, talking the talk is important, but walking the walk and digging in with a “hands on” attitude is what ultimately makes a difference.
“Ideally the project of “church” is to practice love in the community and to learn to be love. So here is a field trip that let us put our hands and feet where our mouth is. This was such an incredible opportunity for us all to learn love and give love in very practical hands-on ways,” said Vetter. “One of the things we wanted the youth to take away is seeing our youth become something much larger than themselves. It’s not just a week of your life to check off for a college application. It was really being part of a project that is much bigger than yourself and the contribution that is much more important or bigger than a line on your college application.”