Every year, for the past five years, I have had the privilege of attending a Mission Trip to the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Kentucky with my home parish to serve others for a week. During my first year, I was reluctant to go because I was afraid that I wouldn’t know anyone or what I was going to be doing. I was so nervous about going off on my own for a week by myself that I almost backed out of this spiritual journey. I reflected on it more, and I decided to still attend. It was one of the best decisions that I have ever made because it changed my life and how I perceived the world. Being from an area where there are not many less fortunate people, I felt that I never really knew anything about them and their circumstances. When I would come across less fortunate people, I didn’t know what to say, think, or do because I was not exposed to it that much.
It was from this spiritual journey in Christ that I was able to understand more about them and their living conditions that now it is something that I am very passionate about. I also feel like I am able to grow closer to Christ through this. I say this because when I am on the “Job site,” I can talk to the homeowner and get to know them while refurbishing their homes. This is some very precious time because even while you are working, you get to know more about them and things that have happened in their lives. These are some of the most heartwarming stories that I have ever heard, and I have loved listening to them.
Some of the homeowners that I have talked to over the past couple of years have shared personal stories that were so touching that they almost broke my heart. For example, during my first trip, in 2015, the homeowners we worked for were in need of a ramp to get in and out of their house. We will refer to them as Robert and Mary in our story.
If you have never been to the Appalachian Mountains, let me paint you a picture. The roads become more narrow and windy as you are going up the mountain. Once you get to the spot where there are houses, there is not a lot of room to park, nor space for anything. Since this house was basically on top of a hill, we had to bring the ramp down in a zig-zag layout. For this family, we built over 120 feet of ramp and decking combined so that they could safely get in and out of their house.
The recipients of the ramp and deck were struck with grief in January of 2015 when Robert was diagnosed with Dementia. Robert and Mary only had steps to enter their house in the front, with no way to get out the back door, there was simply just a drop off. The stairs that they had in front were not even in place, more like just sitting there. Robert was getting to the point where he could hardly walk by the time we were there to help them, which was in June of 2015. The difference that only a few months can sometimes make in the health of an individual can be night and day.
"As I am sitting here writing this, I have tears coming to my eyes because of their difficult journey through life together."
By talking to Mary, I learned that in November of 2014, Robert was very healthy, in fact, he was speaking and riding a bike up and down the street with his grandkids. Fast forward, 7 months later, and he can no longer walk without assistance and is wheelchair-bound. He also can no longer speak, so it is difficult to know when he needs something. Mary, or one of their daughters, had to carry him up and down the stairs, if they needed to leave and when they came back home. He was becoming very dependent on them, so it was emotionally draining for them to deal with. Sometimes, they would have someone stay home with Robert while Mary ran a few errands since it was so much work to get him in and out of the house. Remember, the stairs were not sturdy, so it often took several people to move him. It made my heartache to learn about these difficulties and the ways that this beautiful family were enduring said difficulties. Another thing that I learned about this family was how much they helped others in their community. This is another reason why I was so happy that we were there, at their house, to serve them. We were there so we could give them the change that they needed in order to meet their circumstances and enable them to live life to its fullest.
Since this was such a touching story, the other members from my parish had a great idea to make them a bench to enable Robert to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine. We learned right away that he loved being able to sit outside for fresh air and sunshine. Ever since he was diagnosed, he was not able to sit outside and enjoy it because of their conditions. We had to get this special surprise approved by the group leaders that we were working through since they have a specific price that they can spend on each job site. Long story short, they approved it, so we got right to the building. We knew we could make the family’s dream come true by the end of the week. We were able to get everything finished, except for the last deck boards on the previous deck box. We had the box in the ground but did not have time to put the deck boards on by the end of the week, so the crew that was in charge of the job site finished it on Friday, while we made the trip back home.
When we revealed the finished product to the family, their facial expressions said it all. I loved being able to see what they thought of their new home, which made it easier for them to maneuver effectively. Robert came outside and sat on his new bench and gave us the biggest smile I have ever seen anyone give in such a tough time. This immediately brought tears to my eyes, and is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. Two months later, I learned that Robert had passed, which was difficult for me to take in because I grew so close to their family in a personal and spiritual way.
It was through serving others that I was able to find Christ because I was able to go out and help them. I grew to love God more and more, which made me want to help the less fortunate even more for my passion of Christ. The love I shared then spread to others because I was able to see all of His wonderful deeds. I was able to connect better with Him because he showed me how much it brightens another person's world. I learned how much they appreciate everything others do for them, which led me to this amazing journey.
I encourage you to say “Yes” to the next service opportunity that comes your way, you will not regret it, I promise! I am so glad that I decided to go on a Mission Trip that first year, and have gone every year since. My challenge is for you to go out and serve others in need. What is holding you back from living out the servitude of Christ in your life?