A team of thirty students, faculty, and alumni from Saint Joseph’s Cohort, an Upper School apostolate, recently spent eight days on mission in the remotest parts of Appalachia. Twenty-four students, five faculty members, and one alumnus (Ryan Casey, ’12) made up the team, traveling to Whitley City, Kentucky, to volunteer with Hills and Hollers, a nonprofit ministry seeking to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the region.
Whitley City is a roughly 1,000-resident community in a solitary corner of the Appalachian Mountains. According to Mr. Rosenzweig, faculty advisor to St. Joseph’s Cohort, 55% of income in the area is government aid, which only covers part of a family’s basic needs. “We realized that EBT doesn’t cover so many critical things,” said Mr. Rosenzweig, so the group arrived bearing gifts collected during a toiletry drive during the school year to restock the Hills and Hollers “community closet.”
The team spent their days on the Hills and Hollers job site, installing siding on a home being built for a local family. They worked quickly, which was good, because they lost a day of work to this summer’s boon and bane, the rain. Still, the group got more accomplished than they anticipated, and spent some time helping the Good Shepherd Catholic Chapel prepare for the arrival of a new priest, building benches, painting, even making signage.
While they had five faculty members with them – Mr. Rosenzweig, Ms. Boyle, Mr. Labbe, Mr. Radosta, and Mrs. Tereshinski – it was the team’s student leaders that steered the bulk of the week’s work. Along with Mr. Rosenzweig, the six leaders – Zack Palmer, Emily Browning, Noah Duffy, Sam Grisham, Carson Hooper, and Celine Liebrecht-Jones – had ventured to Whitley City in February to meet with Hills and Hollers and begin planning their trip. It would be the third mission trip Zack, Noah, and Carson had made with Saint Joseph’s Cohort and the second for Emily, Sam, and Celine (in fact, only seven of the twenty-four students marked this as their first trip). Mr. Rosenzweig remarked how amazing the leadership team was; before they left for the trip, he asserted that “this was the easiest trip I’ve planned. I’m more or less just monitoring at this point. They’re doing everything.” Each leader led a small group responsible for their share of each day’s chores. “Each group took turns cooking dinner each night,” Mr. Rosenzweig reported. “We went out for Mexican one night, and ice cream the first night.”
The mission trip naturally had spiritual elements, too. The team set aside time each night, at least an hour, for journaling and small group discussions reflecting on the work they had done and the experiences they had. One of the most memorable moments of the trip may have been Mass at Good Shepherd, where the team more than doubled the Sunday congregation. Rural Kentucky is certainly mission territory for the Church, and the congregation demonstrates that, twenty-five faithful who travel from all over the region to the only Catholic presence in thirty miles. The team, though, was warmly welcomed by the congregation and its pastor.
The team made the most of their free time during the week, in spite of the persistent rain. Their planned trip to the nearby water park was rained out, but they made the best of it, taking in a movie at the closest movie theater, thirty minutes away. The team also took full advantage of the unspeakably gorgeous landscape, trekking to a local waterhole and day-hiking through the National Forest.
It was a daunting week for the team: long work days and deep reflection in a hidden corner of the country close to home. Mission work like this, though, is transformative, both for the missionaries and the people they serve. Their week of service was significant for a community that depends on partnerships with groups like Saint Joseph’s Cohort to care for its people in the pervasive grasp of poverty.