Students Brave Rain, Interfaith Challenges on Alternative Spring Break
Story by Julia Savich ’16; Photos by Anna Kerr-Carpenter '17
Three faculty and staff leaders and 21 students spent spring break volunteering with
the Appalachia Service Project in Chavies, Kentucky. Following is physics major and
Alternative Spring Break (ASB) leader Julia Savich’s first-person account of the experience.
When going through everyone's "thorns and roses", or highs and lows, of the day, many
students and faculty shared feelings about the hike we took at Natural Bridge State
Resort Park, a halfway stop on our way to our final destination, Chavies, Ky. The
hike was a suggestion by Assistant Professor of Physics Bruno deHarak, who lived in
Kentucky for many years. “It was a perfect break from our long drive the day before,”
said ASB student leader and accounting major Sarah Sadowski ’17. “It was also a perfect
opportunity to bond with other ASB participants.” The paths were slippery and icy,
making the three-fourths of a mile hike to the top of the natural bridge quite a challenge,
but the sights at the top were undoubtedly worth the hour-long, slippery climb. The
arch itself was breathtaking. Towering over the trail and brilliant burnt orange in
color, it stood out from the snowy hills and dark trees leading up to it. We marveled
at the beauty of nature around us. This is why more than half of the students mentioned
the striking sights and the warmth of the sun while standing on top of the rocky arch
during the group reflection at the end of the day.
Natural Bridge State Resort Park was an hour away from Chavies, Kentucky, so we hopped
back into the vans for another hour once we finished our hike and lunch to proceed
to our final destination. After driving up what is quite possibly a road steeper than
Lombard Street in San Francisco, we arrived at the Appalachia Service Project (ASP)
center in Chavies. The center was a large building situated on the top of the hill
that had large dormer rooms for the men and women and a large common area for eating.
Three other groups from Virginia Tech, Juniata College, and Wake Forest College were
already settled in, and we enjoyed a nice buffet style dinner prepared for us by volunteer
cooks who made all of our meals during the week.
The 24 of us from IWU were split up into four different work groups, ranging in size
from five to seven people, and each group was assigned a different project for the
week ahead. Three of the groups worked on weatherproofing and insulating homes, and
one group worked on building a porch and digging a drainage ditch. Most people were
not too keen on the challenges of working with insulation, but we all overcame that
initial feeling because we came to build safer, warmer, drier homes, and installing
proper insulation is one of the first steps toward that goal.
At first, being on the worksite seemed a little intimidating despite the many building
experiences I have had in the past including: an ASP trip in 2008, many Habitat for
Humanity builds in the Bloomington-Normal community, and the two past IWU Alternative
Spring Break Habitat for Humanity trips to Laredo, Texas, and Albany, Georgia. ASP
works a little bit differently in that the experienced volunteers visit the worksites
rather than stay with the builders the entire time. Also, the five experienced ASP
staffers had to oversee ten different worksites, so their visits were not as frequent
as I was expecting. Another significant difference between Habitat for Humanity builds
and ASP projects is that Habitat builds new homes and ASP refurbishes pre-existing
ones. This means that we had to adapt general building techniques to fit the unique
qualities of each home, rather than start from scratch with all new materials and
very standardized building practices. This proved to be the biggest challenge we had
to overcome during the week.
Our assignment was to redo the skirting, or underpinning, around the bottom of our
family’s trailer home that was cracked and significantly weathered. “Mosey Monday”
is what the ASP staff calls the first day at the worksite, which is a time to get
acquainted with the family, gain a better understanding of the project, and bond with
your work crew. My work crew, however, did not mosey very much.
After introducing ourselves to the couple we were working for, we removed the underpinning,
and then we cleared debris from underneath the home. This process involved “army crawling”
through the mud under the home. The clearance below the house ranged from three feet
to a tight four inches, and at this point in the week, we were fairly timid when it
came to squeezing into the dimly lit crawlspace. Not surprisingly, weatherizing the
home was not cleanest process. Once we removed all of the loose pieces of debris that
we could reach, we then began the process of laying down a vapor barrier, or essentially
a plastic tarp, on top of the ground under the house to keep as much water away from
the preexisting insulation as possible. Initially, we were supposed to remove the
preexisting insulation and vapor barrier from the home, but a day before we started
the project, our homeowner changed his mind because he did not want us to remove the
factory-installed insulation and risk a decrease in value of his home.
A good bonding experience between the members of our group and our homeowner arose
when our homeowner’s daughter was trying to turn her car around in the driveway and
got her car stuck in the mud. We put in quite a lot of group effort attempting to
rock her car out, but it was not freed until our homeowner pulled her car out with
his own car while my group simultaneously pushed. Freeing a car stuck in the mud was
a new experience for at least half of my group members, myself included.
In the evening we participated in a large group reflection with the other schools
where we sang songs, discussed the socioeconomic gap between members of the Appalachian
community, and talked about the beauty we found in the day. The ASP staff members
led this gathering, and they continued to lead evening gatherings every day during
As an IWU group, we did shout-outs where anyone can share something that stood out
to him or her during the day that another IWU group member did. At this point in the
week, most of the shout-outs were related to people initiating good work or learning
how to use a new tool or jumping into a new situation. We also discussed what each
group’s project entailed.
The second day of work involved a lot less work at the worksites and more work within
the ASP center due to consistent rain over the course of the day. My group cleaned
and organized the ASP center’s tool shed, and then we visited our worksite to check
on the vapor barrier we laid out the day before to make sure the rain had not set
back our work too significantly. After returning from the worksite, we painted one
of the large hallways in the center.
Sarah Sadowski’s group was one of the few to brave the rain and head to their worksite.
The group spread gravel on the mountainous driveway to make it easier for the homeowners
to drive up to their house without getting stuck in the mud, which turns out to be
a common problem in the area. They returned at the end of the day after making a significant
amount of progress, but not without a decent amount of mud caked on them.
Chris Crown ’17 and Selena Greising ’16 spent a lot of time fixing the showers in
the center so that the rest of the groups could make use of them upon returning from
the worksites. ORL staff member Kaitlin Ballard, the staff leader of the group containing
Chris and Selena, was very impressed by her group’s ability to adapt and take on projects
even with the challenges faced. All of the groups faced challenges due to the rain,
but each group quickly took action to find meaningful work to do at the center. We
also had a chance to bond with the other IWU work crew groups because multiple groups
were back at the center working together.
The day ended with an evening gathering during which we learned about the tough life
decisions coal miners must make when choosing between further education and mining.
The ASP staffers posed a hypothetical scenario in which a father has black lung disease,
and his son has to decide whether he will head to the mines where he can make enough
money to support his family and pay for his father’s medical bills or go to college
on a full-ride scholarship, which in the long run will likely equip him to obtain
a better-paying, less-risky job, but provides no immediate income. Many of the IWU
groups leaned toward going to college to break the cycle of poor health due to working
in the mines, but then realized that the son has to sacrifice the short-term well-being
of his family in order to do so. Many of the groups from the other schools, where
students have more knowledge of coal mining towns, chose coal mining for the son because
of the immediate payoff and value of spending time with his ailing father. The scenario
was a tough one, and there was no right answer.
On the third day of work, we went to our worksite and worked for the whole day despite
light, intermittent rain showers. There was a significant amount of mud at our worksite,
but after accepting the fact that we would end the day coated in mud, we had a fun
time working hard. Our group finished army crawling underneath the house, braving
the areas with only a 6-inch clearance. The process involved innovative thinking in
order to smooth out the vapor barrier underneath the shortest areas under the house.
We made good use of a tool that we called the “toothbrush:” a long, narrow board that
had a wire brush attached to one end. The toothbrush helped us push the vapor barrier
underneath the front porch where there was less than a 4-inch clearance. After we
finished laying the vapor barrier, we were able to move forward to the first steps
of building a small insulating wall around the bottom of the house by adding boards
along the ground. A future group will attach the short walls.
The CEO of ASP visited our worksite and talked to us about the importance of getting
younger adults involved in service projects like ASP. He made note of the fact that
people who start volunteering early in life, tend to recognize the value of applying
their developed skills to helping others. He was happy to see the progress we made
and provided us with input into how we should proceed with some of the more challenging
parts of our project.
Over the course of our time in Kentucky, we learned both building skills and general
life skills. By the middle of the week, three of the four work crews rescued four
different vehicles from the mud. Not only did Chavies see two feet of snow two weeks
ago, it had also rained fairly consistently since then. All of the crews braved the
elements on Wednesday and made significant progress on their projects.
During the group discussions, students made note of the patience of other students
during teaching moments. A few students from other schools noted the rich diversity
of religious backgrounds of the students from IWU. Since ASP is a religious program,
there were many events that focused on Christianity, including devotions, evening
discussions, and prayers before every meal. Most of the groups from the other schools
were faith-based campus organizations. IWU students made note of their desire for
more interfaith acknowledgement, but they also respected the strong religious foundations
On Thursday, we lucked out with a beautiful day in terms of weather. The sun was shining
brightly after two days of rain. We had a wonderful morning devotion led by IWU Chaplain
Elyse Nelson Winger that focused on the drive to help others as viewed through many
different traditions, and this sparked a noticeable shift in all of the ASP staff-led
devotions, prayers, and evening gatherings that followed. I do not think they knew
about the vast religious diversity of our group, and once Elyse conveyed that diversity,
they respected the different beliefs of the members of the IWU group by focusing on
the cross-cultural values of service to others. One student from another school started
off his devotion in the morning by explaining that he was sharing with us from the
religious background in which he was most knowledgeable. Once Elyse acknowledged the
importance of making interfaith connections, more emphasis was placed on the common
values shared between traditions rather than solely those values of Christianity.
The wonderful start to the morning transitioned into a productive day at the worksite.
We made significant progress on the home, with very minimal mud. We finished securing
the wooden top and bottom places all around the bottom that holds the miniature wall
and vinyl skirting. Attaching the long pieces of wood involved drilling upside-down
underneath the house, and before we got to that point, we had to find studs along
the bottom of the home to attach the board to while holding the board in place. This
part of our project required the most teamwork and resulted in a lot of group bonding.
We ended up working over the allotted work period because we were determined to finish
installing the top plates, and screwing in the last screw of the last board was very
To help celebrate the successful workday, we made a quick stop at a local national
park for what turned out to be a 15-minute hike in the mountains since we had to make
it back in time for dinner. The many streams down the mountains were running quickly
due to all of the melting snow and rain over the past few days. The atmosphere was
extremely peaceful and restful after a long day of work.
In the evening, Jeremy, a staff leader, shared with us some of his senior undergraduate
research on the cultural implications of coal mining in Appalachia. He told us that
coal mining is one of the few ways people in Appalachia can support their families,
and in Appalachia coal miners are looked up to much like military veterans. Miners
are seen as people who sacrificed their lives for others. Although economic and environmental
issues of coal mining are extensive, there is no cut and dry solution to these problems.
Additionally, one must understand that coal mining is a major part of the Appalachian
culture, and to take that away from the people is to take away their identity and
pride in the work they have done.
As we were faced with yet another rainy day, my group took the opportunity to volunteer
at New Beginnings Learning Center in Hazard, Kentucky, where we painted the walls
of a long hallway. The staff had been trying to find time to paint the hallway for
more than half of a year, and they were eager to have help because they will soon
have local high school students coming in to paint murals on the walls we painted.
This opportunity was a wonderful chance to make connections in the community and to
develop an understanding of the services this non-profit organization provides. New
Beginnings Learning Center provides childcare for families that are a part of the
Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, so that their children can grow and learn
in a safe environment.
Once we finished painting and the rain died down, we returned to our worksite where
we cut and installed the vinyl underpinning on the two short sides of the home. While
we were working, the homeowner’s grandson played inside in front of the window, working
very hard to hold our attention. After four hours in the rain, we placed the last
corner piece on the second side. It was so nice to see the new skirting on the two
sides of the home, and we wished we could have seen it completely finished. The work
we did accomplish, however, was substantial, and we were happy to make significant
progress on the project.
At the evening gathering, all of the different schools’ groups shared their eye-opening
moments of the most impact during the week. Students mentioned the impression their
family's gratefulness left on them, the value of experiences had by some of the international
students, the undeniable religious call to service, and strong bonds between group
members. It was very moving to see how meaningful this program was to all of the students
We then participated in one last round of IWU shout-outs where people praised the
strong group dynamics, the patient teaching of others, Elyse’s successful recognition
of powerful interfaith connections, and impressively productive workweeks.
During the eight-hour car trip back, I discussed this article I planned to write with
Assistant Professor of Nursing Wendy Kooken. She shared with me that through this
trip, she saw that IWU students are curiosity driven, critical thinkers, and this
trip allowed her to perceive the collective culture of IWU outside of the nursing
program. IWU students sought out answers and made sure they did things the right way.
They put great thought into the jobs they did, and worked hard to do the best work
they could. Although ethical challenges were faced in the trip, the students stood
up for what they believed in, and started what became an outstanding interfaith discussion.
Throughout the course of the week, the students made clear that doing good isn't enough;
you have to do your work well.