Archive for the ‘Immersion Trip’ Category

Celebrating Appalachia

Celebrating Appalachia

Beth Collins, Director, Appalachian Institute at WJU

Too many times when the term “Appalac

Local community members and the WJU campus Celebrate Appalachia!

Local community members and the WJU campus Celebrate Appalachia!

hia” is used, a negative, almost sympathetic thought, is conjured up. At the Appalachian Institute, while we recognize challenges that need to be addressed such as health care, environmental exploitation, generational poverty, and access to quality rural education, we also stand firm in our belief that this region is one to be celebrated, even bragged about. For this reason, we recently held our annual Celebrate Appalachia event on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University.

We kicked off the week of events by getting the campus involved in our new community vegetable garden. Over 40 people shoveled, planted, and began to grow the seeds of community and healthy living. Later that night, campus and community members celebrated some of our greatest Appalachian assets—food and music! An Appalachian feast complete with ramps, fried green tomatoes, venison stew, chicken and dumplings, and apple stack cakes were served up. Along with the dinner came some great music from a local bluegrass band and a quilting workshop.

Later in the week, Appalachia’s long history with the labor movement was highlighted by local musician and WJU employee, Tom Breiding. Breiding’s folk music told the story of the earliest labor protests, the role of WV in the start of a nationwide labor movement, and the current struggles for union coal miners.

Rooted in Scottish, Irish, and Native American influence, Appalachian folk tales reflect history and fantasy. During the week of events, local storyteller, Judi Tarowsky, performed her collection of ghost stories for local community children during our Appalachian Story Hour.

The Appalachian Pastoral Letters, specifically the original 1975 This Land is Home to Me, highlight the beauty and challenges of the region. The letters were a catalyst for organizations like the Appalachian Institute to be formed. Several philosophy and theology classes learned the impact the letters have had on the region and the “dream of the mountains’ struggles” that we still encounter today through a personal account from Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ and Fr. Jim O’Brien, SJ.

A key feature of the week was to not only emphasize the splendor of the region, but also modern challenges that the region is facing. The topic of natural gas drilling is one that’s literally taken over regional news. Many of the news reports and academic journals focus on the environmental costs versus the economic benefits.  Brian Cohen, lead photographer for the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, introduced a different category into the conversation—the community impact. Through an unbiased lens, the team wove together a stunning, and sometimes tragic, story of families that are succeeding and families that are forgotten. Several community groups, students, and faculty attended the evening presentation.

To end the week of events, Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ led a lunch discussion with employees on green theology and Appalachia. Using excerpts from At Home in the Web of Life and the model of the Franciscans, a clear question arose—do we have a vocabulary yet in terms of the dignity of nature to effectively argue the pros and cons of a particular intervention into ecosystems? As a Jesuit university, this burden of creating such a vocabulary and shift in mindset is particularly significant.

Here at the Institute we believe that praising a region is just as important as advocating for its struggles. The two must go hand in hand if empowerment is to happen. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ said during convocation at WJU this year, “Without kinship there is no peace. Without kinship there is no justice.” Delighting in our history, our culture, our kinship as Appalachians is the foundation for advocacy and change.

To Love and Serve

by Chris Sullivan, Boston College High School

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Our sojourn for service in West Virginia of April vacation had a significant impact on my peers, the chaperones, as well as myself during and after our efforts.  Despite the fact that the trip was a school required trek, I felt that each one of us approached the trip with open minds and genuine hearts. Over six days in WV, we served the poor by working in soup kitchens.  We served the poor by helping organizations that recycle just about everything you can imagine and redistribute it to those in need all around WV. We served by tearing down and rebuilding homes that had been entirely flooded out. We learned about the struggles and injustices that the poor peoples of WV face each day.  I believe the combined contributions of our group touched those who were in need.   But what was most surprising was the way we all changed and progressed during our time spent in West Virginia.

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Through spending time with the people of West Virginia, we dispelled the previous stereotypes that we had of one another.  Everybody came to the realization that we are not all that different from one another.  We realized that being human unites us in a way we should be sure to consider while we live our lives.  We are all human and here to love and serve one another. This was the most remarkable characteristic of the trip for me. Everything else took the backseat as people began to help people solely because of this profound connection and calling. The  experience of breaking down and rebuilding houses in Logan, West Virginia was perhaps the greatest example. It was amazing to realize that at that very moment we all had the power to make a difference in this world.  The needs of this family were immense and we were called to be there to not only build a home, but to reform and build new relationships based on hope and love. Overall the trip took a physical and emotional toll on each and every one of the participants, myself included. However, undoubtedly it was a sincere act of kindness by a concrete troop of “men for others.”

Rebuilding with Graditude: Boston College High School

by Mike Goulding, Boston College High School

I hadn’t even heard of the flooding in southern West Virginia until about a week before our troop.  I had not seen it on the news, newspaper, or any media source.  I found out through a group leader as we were preparing for our trip, who had found out through talking with volunteer coordinators via phone.  This was extremely daunting to me and others going on the trip.  How could this be going on in my own country and not even hear a single thing of it.  We saw youtube clips of some of the devastation, but would not even compare to actually being there.

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We arrived at the first house, the entire area had been severely affected.  Every building or house in the area was damaged in some way.  But in this very hopeless looking environment, dark clouds, raining; one found shining hope in the large groups of people, all helping to make this place HOME again.  It was truly quite a sight.  We entered the house.  It was quaint, though a very beautiful place to raise a family.  The water levels had reached beyond five feet and its effects were noticeable.  We began tearing down walls, insulation; learning the entire time aspects of the skills our generation has neglected.  We met Tom and Dave, two very special individuals.  Tom is quiet, but an extraordinarily hard worker.  Dave definitely enjoyed talking and I loved talking with him all the more.  He spoke of how right when the floods happened he just came right down.  It seemed that it wasn’t even a question for him, he felt called.  He always speaks with a smile and is genuine to everyone he meets.  We continued to talk as we met again at another house.  The next was also badly, perhaps more.  We tore up a floor and put a new one in, something I have never done before.  I also met Mike, who loved to crack some of the punniest jokes I have ever heard, still making me laugh, none the less.  He taught me a lot about carpentry and importance of the craft.  I was able to work much one on one with Mike and enjoyed his many words of wisdom.  He told the group and I, as we left, “What you’ll learn in life is how YOU make sense of the world.”  Those words have stuck with me and always will, one among many others he spoke.

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I learned much on my trip and was able to experience a truly beautiful land and people.  WV is a place like no other and the people you meet are some of the most good-hearted and passionate people you will ever come across.  I am grateful for all the people and places that have touched me in my life, and West Virginia will always hold a special place in my heart.

Comfort Always: St. Louis University

by Michael Scolarici, St. Louis University

It was Wednesday morning.  Some friends and I woke up at 6:00AM to slip in a run before the sun began to crawl over the horizon.  After returning I led a reflection with two main focuses:  a phrase from Coach Michael Arenberg, “First thought, good thought,” and a quote from Dr. Thomas A. Dooley a Saint Louis University Medical School graduate “A doctor’s job is to cure sometimes, to relieve often, and to comfort always.”  I wanted to share the first phase from one of my high school mentors to remind my new friends that we have the power to decide if we are going to have a good day or let the obstacles we face bring us down.  The second quote aligns with our Health immersion trip, because not only does it describe a doctor’s duties, but Dr. Dooley says that the main responsibility of a doctor is to comfort.  No one on the trip was a doctor, but we all have the capability to comfort those we interacted with on our trip.

After we finished sharing our thoughts on the reflection, Adam, Sara and I traveled to Boone County, WV to serve and shadow at the Boone-Raleigh health clinic.  Our shadowing experience offered very unique opportunities which included taking vital signs of the incoming patients, brainstorming for ideas on a grant regarding black lung, interacting with patients in the blood lab.  The atmosphere of this rural clinic was simple yet warming, and the staff was glad to have us for the morning.

          

Once the three of us began to settle in for the morning, I felt that we posed less of a burden and offered more of a relief to the staff through our conversation and aid in busy work.  I was asked to follow the student physician’s assistant (PA) as she held an appointment for prescription refills with an older mother and daughter.  The student PA completed a very thorough and professional history despite a seemingly routine appointment, and after a few minutes of talking with each patient she was able to open their lives and delve deeper.  Both mother and daughter complained of not only a persistent coughs but chronic vomiting and diarrhea for the daughter and knee pain for the mother.  Besides the cough, both mother and daughter also had a distrust of medicine in common.  The daughter explained that despite only eating baby food, oatmeal, and Pepto-bismal for the past couple of months, she only would trust one hospital to see a gastrointestinal specialist.  Although the mother repeated multiple times that although she has knee pain, she was adamant about not wanting anyone to touch it with needles.  The mother also was very specific that she would only consider getting her knee x-rayed by a nurse she knows at the clinic.  Understanding their concerns, the student PA discussed how she could try to accommodate their requests but also that they might have to step out of their comfort zones to get the appropriate treatment they needed.

This obvious distrust of the medical system is frightening because it adds another layer of complications when trying to treat someone who is now not only limited by poverty and access to healthcare but also by their own fear.  Earlier in the week, I also shadowed at Jackson General Hospital, and one of the patients in the clinic was almost desperate to take off his wrist identification from the hospital.  He explained to the PA if you don’t have one of them on then there is nothing wrong with you.  Some may call this ignorance of their own health needs, but there is something deeper.  Fear of what the doctor may tell them and fear of what anyone involved in healthcare may do to them burrows deep into the culture.  This fear is contagious and needs to be addressed along with all of the other public health concerns that everyone knows about throughout WV.  Whether it be lung cancer, obesity, diabetes, bad knees, or a mystery gastrointestinal problem, fear must first be calmed and over come before a patient will accept and follow a healthcare provider especially in the areas that I saw in West Virginia.

Immersed in Coal Country: University of San Francisco

By Allison Schaub, University of San Francisco

A small group of University of San Francisco students myself included and staff had the unique opportunity to visit Appalachia, an area rich in culture, beautiful landscapes and a shiny black rock called coal. We went on a weeklong trip to West Virginia through the USF Ministry Arrupe Immersion Program in order to gain a deeper understanding of the impact the coal industry has had on the region’s people and environment. We traveled across the state meeting with non-profits such as Coal River Mountain Watch who are working towards ending the state’s dependency on coal, a natural gas company called Chesapeake Energy, The West Virginia Coal Association and then ended the trip with a powerful visit to Kayford Mountain. Seeing a mountain and the surrounding ecosystems completely destroyed from mining and hearing the story of Larry Gibson, who calls the mountain his home, was a poignant culmination of our immersion.

Coal has been the biggest source of US energy for hundreds of years, but the way of obtaining it has changed drastically. Coal companies now use a type of mining called Mountain Top Removal. The tops of mountains are blasted off using explosives, leaving the coal seams exposed in order to be mined. While this type of mining is safer for the miners in comparison to the traditional underground method, the environment and people living in the area are being adversely affected and the industry has become more mechanized, therefore providing fewer jobs to the people of West Virginia. The blasted mountain or “overburden” are filling valleys, causing massive flooding across the state and forcing people to leave their homes. Those that aren’t forced to leave the areas that coal companies have moved into are exposed to an array of health risks, such as cancer and birth defects.

A message we continued to hear throughout the trip was that there is a strong love-hate relationship when it comes to the coal industry and the people of Appalachia. The state of West Virginia is stuck in a cycle of poverty because of the lack of job opportunities there. The United States is dependent on cheap energy and West Virginia is dependent on the coal industry. It is a complicated issue and we feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to obtain a deeper understanding of the energy problems our country is facing by connecting to people who have different views on the issue. It is imperative that we all need to be more knowledgeable about the effects of our energy consumption and take responsibility in making changes to create a future that doesn’t require the sacrifice of our environment and the people that live in it in order to turn the lights on.

Note from the Appalachian Institute: To learn more about the cycle of poverty in West Virginia and how people are breaking out of it, see this PBS Frontline article:  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/countryboys/readings/duncan.html

West Virginia the Rich: Loyola University of Maryland

Since I’ve been back from our trip to West Virginia, I’ve been consumed with the question of what it means to be rich. On on our immersion trip, West Virginia was described many times as being the “richest and poorest state in the country”. This didn’t begin to make sense to me until I got home.

We learned that West Virginia is the greatest producer of coal energy, only second to Wyoming. Ninety-seven percent of its energy comes from coal, as well as the majority of the country receives energy sources from this state. Our nation would not be able to function, as it does today, without the resources extracted from Appalachia. In the same breath, West Virginia’s unemployment is consistently rising due to a great deal of mechanization. The divided counties are united when it comes to concern of growing poverty and unemployment and ultimate stability of their futures.


In this sense, yes, West Virginia can be seen as being both rich and poor. While discerning about my time spent and experiences of the past week, I’ve concluded that West Virginia is richer in so many other ways than the rest of the country is lacking.

Although this may be bold, I will go out on a ledge to say that West Virginia is home to the nicest people in the nation. These wonderful people not only invited us into their centers, seminars, and service sites, but also into their hearts. They answered every one of our typically blunt, curious, and personal questions about home, work, and their beliefs of energy sources were impacting their way of life, with educated and passionate responses. While usually being so rushed for time, our conversations were relaxed, engaged, and thoughtful. I learned what it to be joyful to live in homes that were filled with family relationships, tradition, and culture, rather than computers and televisions. The beautiful mountains that guarded their homes, as well as, the hollers that separated them, were as important to the West Virginians as the air we breathe.


We cannot begin to understand until we immerse ourselves in what we do not know. This vulnerability forced us to listen which in turn brought us understanding. The stories of both the county people and the big energy companies, were enlightening and inspiring because we now can share it with all of you. After one week, I am just beginning to see how much West Virginia has to offer. In the simplest terms, I unknowingly left a piece of my heart in those hollers.

By Kelley Dolan, Loyola University of Maryland

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.