SALISBURY, Md. — Joe Flanagan hopes the teenagers will never be quite the same.
For a week last month, 46 students and 20 adults from St. Francis de Sales in Salisbury worked in Appalachia to fix rotting floors, build stairs, repair leaking roofs and mend tattered spirits and wounded souls brought low by poverty.
St. Francis also includes Holy Redeemer Church in nearby Delmar. The church group volunteered as part of the Appalachia Service Project (ASP), a national Christian service program intended to improve housing in Appalachia. Flanagan and his daughter, Casey, coordinate the efforts at St. Francis with the help of plenty of volunteers and abundant support from the parish.
The goal is to fix homes, but it is so much more. Flanagan explained that the popular program helps to keep young people connected to the church. It instills a love of service and community, helps others and connects people.
They worked on nine homes in Charmco, West Virginia, in seven-member teams for the week. They travel to Kentucky or West Virginia and sleep on air mattresses in the local gym. It’s pretty far from deluxe accommodations and Flanagan jokes that a group of teenage boys can get a little “smelly” after a few days.
But that’s not the point. They worked on teams of five high school students and two adults to make homes “warmer, safer and drier.”
“We are given so much,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to give back a little. (They learn) having nothing doesn’t mean you have nothing. It doesn’t take a large screen TV or a fancy house to be happy.”
“We believe that service is important,” he said. “How can I say this? It’s easy to write a check. It’s not so easy to go somewhere in bad conditions.”
Flanagan hopes that the students, both boys and girls, will see the face of Jesus in the people they meet and help. Much of the program focuses on accepting people for who they are and where they are, without trying to change them. “They realize they are just like us,” he said.
It is a chance to live the faith and bring the church into the community, he believes.
“It renews,” he said.
Nine years later, he still stays in touch with the first family he and Casey helped.
“Appalachia Service Project is a Christian ministry, open to all people, that inspires hope and service through volunteer home repair and replacement in Central Appalachia. Last year, 16,231 volunteers served with ASP, providing critical repairs for 493 families and constructing over 60 new homes,” according to the ASP website.
The core beliefs of the organization are:
- We believe that each person is a child of God imbued with dignity and worth.
- We accept people right where they are and just the way they are.
- We believe that all people should be able to live in affordable, safe, and sanitary housing.
- We are committed to witness through the good quality of our work and careful stewardship of our resources.
- We believe God calls people to serve others as volunteer partners in ministry and we will encourage their growth in faith as they answer this call.
- Where ASP is involved in local communities we will encourage, affirm, and support the fair and just treatment of people.
- We believe in ministering in the spirit of love, acceptance, and hopefulness.
“In 1969, Rev. Glenn “Tex” Evans, a United Methodist minister, (began the program) … during Tex’s 13 years as director at Henderson Settlement in Frakes, Kentucky, he witnessed the great need for home repair assistance. So as part of his already-thriving outreach to the people of Appalachia, he recruited 50 teens and adult volunteers to repair homes in Barbourville, Kentucky. They worked on-site during the day and worshiped in the evenings. By summer’s end, four families had safe, warm homes for the winter, fifty young lives had been changed forever — and a longstanding legacy was born.
Evans set the tone for what ASP is today: an extended family where laughter is king. Where relationships matter. And where changing the lives of families and volunteers alike is the highest priority of all.
Since 1969, 393,643 volunteers from across the nation have repaired 17,866 homes,” according to the site.
“Today, with the help of more than 16,000 volunteers each year, our goal remains to make homes warmer, safer and drier for families in need. Yet ASP is more than a home repair program. It also provides a unique framework that fosters transformational experiences for volunteers, families served, and staff — by building relationships with each other that break down cultural, social and economic barriers. We often hear of significant life changes resulting from the ASP experience: of families renewing their faith in the goodness of others, of people newly motivated to continue their education, of young adults choosing careers of service. No one walks away from the ASP experience unchanged. The results are truly amazing,” according to the website.
The teenagers have to work during the year to prepare themselves for the trip. They build at least three wheelchair ramps for local residents and volunteer twice monthly at a Christian shelter. Meetings for the next year begin in late summer and the monthly meetings and Mass will continue until the June trip.