One Designer's New Perspective on Service Trips

By Jessica Morrow

10 Days and 1,000 Miles Flying by the Seat of My Overalls

Every summer for one week in high school, I ventured with St. Giles Parish from Oak Park, Illinois to various counties throughout the southern region of Appalachia to make homes warmer, safer, and drier through the Appalachia Service Project (ASP). My experiences on these trips had such a meaningful impact on my life that my senior year of high school and last summer with ASP, my friend Noelle and I decided that when we turned 25 we would go back on the trip as adults.

We kept our pact, and this July traveled to Fentress County, Tennessee. One of my biggest obstacles going back was defending my age. In the months leading up to the trip I was asked on more than one occasion which high school I currently attended (by both students and adults). It dawned on me that I was responsible for the safety of these kids and they didn’t even realize I wasn’t also along for the ride. At 25 years old, apparently I have managed to look just as I did in high school. Luckily my complete disregard for current high school trends set me apart not too long after our departure.

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The work crew I was on consisted of myself, one other adult and 5 teens. Together, we were tasked the project of turning a repossessed trailer into a school house for a family homeschooling their three children—Nathan, 13, Lindsay, 11, and Alora, 7. It was brought to our attention that Lindsay, the older daughter, was having trouble attending school away from home because of bullying due to her having an autism spectrum disorder. She didn’t feel comfortable around large groups of people she didn’t know. For this reason, the parents took it upon themselves to teach their children at home. The family lived on a large area of land with a creek and forest behind their home. The kids were always running around, using their imagination to turn their backyard into a jungle, or whatever else they could dream up. The youngest daughter, Alora, would join us occasionally to help prime and paint baseboard trim. Lindsay spent most of her time inside keeping to herself, and Nathan was most often glued to one of his video games.

Throughout the week, I surprised myself with my ability to help lead my crew while also taking a step back. This trip wasn’t centered around me, but instead on the teens. Instead of jumping at each new opportunity, I delegated it to one of them, taking the time to teach them how to do it along the way. Their enthusiasm was contagious; even the most shy of the group was jumping at the chance to sand, saw or paint by the end of the week. On our last day, we walked into a different room to find Lindsay, with paint brush in hand and paint all over the floor. She apologized as soon as we entered the room, explaining that she just wanted to to help. At this moment, I really felt that the work we were doing was much more meaningful than I had first thought. We were helping these kids break out of their comfort zones and to build relationships with people they might not have ever met otherwise.

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Our efforts to turn their trailer into a safe, fun environment for the children to learn was rewarding beyond explanation. With money raised throughout the year, we presented them with toys and new school supplies to use for the upcoming school year. The joy it brought each one of them was stunning.

One of the adults that I met told me not to make any decisions about whether or not I’d return until I’d been home for a full week. At the time, I had already decided that I’d be returning next summer, and don’t see myself changing my mind. It is amazing to see how much the kids from my community grow from their experience in one week, and I look forward to growing with them for many years to come.

 

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