Archive for March, 2012

Heath Care in the Hollows: St. Louis University

By Kelsi
          When I first signed up for the trip to West Virginia, I was not entirely sure what we would be doing. Our group had a few preparatory meetings before leaving, and then one morning we met to load up our vans and eagerly set off on the nine hour car ride.
          Even that first night though left me with a lasting impression–we could see the sky full of constellations as we wound our way through the winding roads dotted with small homes and a babbling creek. The beauty was breath-taking. Still not knowing quite what to expect, we set off for Wheeling Jesuit for an orientation and to meet our trip coordinator. Before our lecture we attended a church service at the small chapel on campus–I think that was my first clue to how the trip would go. After mass parishioners eagerly sought us out and gave us advice or asked questions. With that advice we left for a delicious meal at a local diner before returning for the orientation. Unlike many lectures I have received, I was impressed by how engaging the presentation was. We learned about mountain-top removal, the mining industry, health issues in West Virginia, and the particular culture and charm of the Appalachian region.
          From that lecture onwards, our days were full of activity and learning. We visited Jackson General Hospital where we learned about health systems utilization and the patient population’s needs and assets from surgeons, physical therapists, CEOs, nurse practitioners, and physicians’ assistants. In Boone County we met with an administrator at the Department of Health and Human Services. We walked along mountain ridges after making our way up steep gravel roads to witness the effects of mountain-top removal. The Rock Lake Community Center where we stayed in South Charleston became home for us as we prepared nightly dinners, sang karaoke to the Backstreet Boys and Beyonce, played basketball past the point of visibility, and admired the night’s stars from the vastness of the quarry walls.
         But my two most memorable experiences involved really getting to know the heart of West Virginia: its people. On our second day we left for Wayne County to join a group of men from American Baptist who had devoted their time to disaster relief. When we arrived at the work site, we were all taken aback by the destruction of entire mountain sides. Trees littered road ways and crisscrossed backyards. We dove into our work after no more than a few sentences of direction. Not only did we work alongside the men, but we also worked with the homeowner herself. Ruby was so incredibly brave–she knew what had to be done and she did it. As we worked in camaraderie with the men and Ruby, easy conversation began to flow between us. We learned about how they’d devoted their life’s work to assisting others–even at the ripe ages of sixty and beyond–and how Ruby and her family had been born and raised in the same holler her entire life. The work and friendship created that day strengthened our own individual friendships and I know will have a lasting impact on each of us.
          My second experience came after a day of directing health education activities and volunteering at local after school programs conducted by the Patch 21 program. Our group had spent the day telling stories about hand-washing and chasing the plaque monster from teeth, and had finally ended the day’s activities with the rocking of infants and toddler play at a school in Ripley. I finally allowed myself to be dragged back to the vans and away from the little boy I had been goofing around with for the past few hours so that we could set out to Fairplain Union Church for a dinner reception and some genuine bluegrass music. Immediately upon arriving we were graciously greeted by Debbie who vigorously shook our hands, asked for names, and led us into meal lines and the rest of the community gathering. After loading my plate with delicious lasagna and a cheesy potato casserole, I found a seat with a few group mates and some of the kids from the community. There I met Noah and Taylor; I was so impressed by all of the kids and their willingness to speak with complete strangers let alone strangers who weren’t even their own age. We talked about school, sports, and books and learned what they liked to do for fun. I watched gymnastic feats and listened to them tease each other.
          Everyone gathered in the church itself for a performance from a local bluegrass band. The setting could not have been more perfect: the church was intimate with both community members and the rest of our group interspersed in the pews and the valley’s evening light streaming in from the windows. I swayed and bobbed my head as I remarked on the sublimeness of the evening to my friend Sara. When the music stopped no one left. Instead our trip coordinator’s father got up and spoke shortly before Debbie jumped in with promises of more music from one of the community members, Crystal. Crystal’s song was so beautiful, but even more impressive for me was her son’s, Noah’s, rendition of the song “Lead Me”. An eleven year-old boy got up on the parish stage and sang beautifully, completely alone to strangers who an hour or so before he had never met. Filled with good food, good conversation, and the evening’s entertainment we made conversation with the pastor, parishioners, and band before leaving. As the light turned to dark we finally progressed our way towards the back of the church giving hugs, handshakes, and warm thank yous to our hosts. We loaded our buses, but not before Debbie hurried our way with offerings of leftovers and a few last stories.
          Those two experiences left me with such a lasting impression of the warmth and community of West Virginians that was continued throughout our experiences. Everywhere we went we were received kindly and with enthusiasm. I am so thankful for the opportunities I had to meet with and engage in the community and to the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit for their help coordinating our trip. I am especially grateful to all the new friends we met and made, because they are the ones who made this trip special for us. Thank you all. The trip is not one I will ever forget.

Boston College Mingo County Service Immersion 3/4/12–3/9/12

Boston College is finishing up their week long immersion trip to Matewan, WV in Mingo County. Check out these two great blog entries written by BC students!

Lisa Bevilacqua: Wednesday

Before we arrived in Matewan, West Virginia, we did not know much about the Appalachian culture or how we would be spending our week. We knew that religion plays a big part in people’s lives here, and we got to experience this first-hand tonight when we attended a Bible study just down the road from the community center that has been our home for the past few days. We arrived late to the Bible study, but the half-hour we spent there had a big impact on us and our understanding of the religious values of the region. Everyone’s opinions were accepted in the service, and people were encouraged to ask questions and share any comments that came to mind during it. At the end of the service, we were lucky enough to join the community in song. Afterward, many of the people seated around us welcomed us and told us how glad they were that we had come to visit and take part in their Bible study. We were surprised that we were the ones being thanked, because we were so grateful to have been welcomed into such a private part of their lives. The experience gave us new insight into an aspect of the community that we hadn’t yet seen. Even though our faiths are slightly different, we found that we could still relate to the discussion and appreciate the messages that were being conveyed. We’ve really enjoyed all the time we’ve spent here in Matewan so far, but going to the Bible study helped us to truly understand the values of the Appalachian culture.

Melissa Donaher: Friday wrap-up

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect coming into the Matewan trip.  I had done a service trip in the past but it had not been very immersive and was more about ‘fixing” the community than being one with them.  This trip was truly one of solidarity, which allowed us to get to better understand both the inspiring and devastating aspects of the Appalachian culture.

One of my most distinct memories was talking with Smoothie on the first day about his life, especially hearing about all the struggles and violence he experienced in his youth and how they shaped his current outlook on the world.  He really wanted to impart some of his wisdom onto us, a common theme in talking with everyone we encountered.  What I took most from this experience was just learning about about the daily lives of Smoothie and the people he described.  It is one thing to listen to people talk about the Appalachia region or read about it but it a much more meaningful experience to  hear and see a firsthand account.   I know that Smoothie and all of his crazy stories are what will stick with me most when I return to my everyday life and inspire me to act with greater purpose and thought with regard to this region than I ever would have before coming to Matewan and meeting all these incredible people.