In the spring of 1991, I was just a regular college graduate, looking forward to a bright future. I had no idea where I would be working or living as I began my mission trip to the hills of Kentucky as a volunteer with Christian Appalachian Project (CAP). There were approximately 15 St. Mike's students taking part in the trip as well as four staff members, all of whom were active volunteers with MOVE. Our main mission was to help poor families with various home repair projects.
I had read several books on CAP and learned as much as I could about the area where we were going, but it still was not enough to prepare me for the life-changing experience that lay ahead. After a tiring two days on the road, we arrived at the dormitory housing at Renfro Valley, Kentucky. Our work began the next day when we traveled nearly an hour to the west to small towns like Bethelridge, Jacktown, and Liberty. We drove down narrow dirt roads only wide enough for a single car to reach our destinations, several of which were literal shacks with abandoned, rusted-out cars in the nearby fields.
The sultry May sun and oppressive humidity were staggering, but that was nothing compared to the inside of the dilapidated homes. Walls were covered with newspaper, cockroaches scurried along the stained congoleum, and pots and pans littered the floor to catch the drops of water that fell from leaks in the roof. My first reaction was ‘why did I ever agree to do this?' I felt sick to my stomach and so far from my comfortable home on Long Island where most families had outdoor pools and expensive cars in the driveway.
Our first project was at the home of an elderly couple who needed a new roof on their humble home. Russell and Maxine Simpson were worn from a life in the sun. Their clothes were dirty and threadbare and what few teeth they had were rotting. As the day progressed, the extreme heat and humidity took a toll on our group, but we persevered and finished the job we'd come to do. We enjoyed lunch together and shared a few laughs with Russell and Maxine, and we took time to get to know them and the life they had made as a couple. The photo we took together after lunch is shows all of us standing side by side; a group who had traveled nearly 1,000 miles, from all walks of life, to accomplish a single task.
I was so far from my comfortable home on Long Island where families had outdoor pools and expensive cars in the driveway.
As a person terrified of heights, my job for the remainder of the day was to stay on the ground and shovel the rotted shingles that were being discarded from the roof and pile them into an old tractor bed. Russell showed me how to drive the aging tractor, and I soon could direct the sputtering machine into the nearby woods and dump the oily mess. By the end of that first day, I was dehydrated, soaked with sweat, achy and covered from head to toe with a black, sooty dust. But, deep inside, I felt like I had truly accomplished something good.
The next several days were much the same. We constructed a new front porch on a small ranch home and painted a large farmhouse owned by a reserved, elderly woman who wore a white linen house-dress and kept her hair up in a bun. The house presented some challenges to being painted, include the swarm of bees that congregated under the front porch and were angry with us disrupting their solitude. They came out in a fury to attack us, sending some of the volunteers screaming through the fields with their paintbrushes in their hands. The homeowner merely glanced through the window as we continued our work, only coming out to speak with us every so often. Little by little, we engaged her in more conversation, and by the time we finished up our project, she agreed to sit on the front swing with us, thrilled with the fresh coat of paint on her house.
The people in these communities had little money but lots of love and devotion for those around them. Their priorities were deeply rooted in religion, family values and most importantly enjoying each day to the fullest. These were some of the very things I took for granted each day in my hurried lifestyle back on the East Coast. It was painfully obvious how much less they had than we did as college graduates when it came to material possessions or education, but they had us beat hands down when it came to simple life experience that comes with age.
Today, I still search for the inner beauty in every person and focus on what we already have as individuals, rather than what I wish I had.
On the long drive home, each of us took time to reflect on our work in Kentucky and how we could use the experiences we gained to mold us into better individuals. I realized that I had learned more about myself and others during this 10-day trip than I did during my entire four years in college. Today, I still search for the inner beauty in every person and focus on what we already have as individuals, rather than what I wish I had.
Twenty years later, I am still thinking about this trip. I hope my fellow alumni will seek out a volunteer experience where you can not only help others, but also learn more about yourself and who you are as a person. Perhaps you already volunteer your time and know exactly what I am writing about. If not, don't be afraid search your inner soul, then reach out and find out who you truly are in this world.
Andre Garant '91 is the author of 18 children's books and a self-inspired photographer.