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SJC Builds Homes in Kentucky

Posted: 7/11/2017

St. Joseph’s Cohort 2017: What a Wonderful World

“Load ‘em up!” The shouts rang out through the Holy Spirit Prep parking lot on Saturday morning, June 17th. The big vans were loaded with tools and luggage, and the little Cougar vans were loaded with more tools and luggage. The parents exchanged their last hugs, “be careful-s”, “call me-s”, “be good-s”, and “don’t forget to brush your teeth-es.” Time to load the St. Joseph’s Cohort crew and hit the road. John Radosta, SJC president, knew what was coming: “The first-timers are excited to discover the unknown. The returners are excited for what they know lies ahead.” After a stop in Rome and a stop in Canton to pick up a few wayward SJCers, the St. Joseph’s Cohort “traveling circus” was on the way to Whitley City, Kentucky.

For the 5th year in a row, SJC was heading north to Appalachian Kentucky to help those in need. Among the jobs they’ve done in the past, the group has built a house and four playhouses, sided several houses, built decks, hung drywall, roofed, landscaped, and painted. In addition to building with hammers, saws, and drills, they have also built relationships with those they’ve served - long-lasting relationships. Jim Barney and Doug Pryor, who run St. Mary’s Appalachian Outreach with Kay Morrow (Kay lives in Whitley City), join SJC every year because they enjoy the way SJC works and how caring the HSP kids are towards others. They drive in from Chicago just to work with the SJC crew. Without these three, none of this would happen.

This year was a special year for SJC – it was the 5-year anniversary of working in Whitley City. To commemorate the milestone, SJC and St. Mary’s made the commitment to build a house. They built a house for the Renfro family. About a year ago, Stoney and Ambra Renfro assumed guardianship of four young nieces and nephews, two of which have special needs. Adding to their family of six, all ten were living in a dilapidated, mold-ridden two-bedroom trailer. As of June, they now live in a new 4-bedroom house, constructed with time, love, and money from Chicago, Cincinnati, and, yes, HSP in Atlanta. These good people needed a new home and we helped make it happen for them. In March of 2017, HSP and SJC helped build the largest home St. Mary’s Outreach has ever built. But we weren’t done yet.

Making friends
On Sunday, June 18th, after Mass at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Whitley City, the group headed to the Renfro home so the SJC kids could meet the family. Jesse Zurovchak and Taylor formed an immediate bond and became BFFs over the next five days. It was the same for Alexa Pinzon and Jayden. Alexa gave her Nikon camera to Jayden one day and she took over 1,000 pictures. In one day! All of the SJC kids formed a special bond with each of those Renfro kids. Angel Casillas formed a unique bond with Shaelyn. At one point, she rode 20 laps around the front yard on her pink and purple bike. She then challenged Angel to do the same. He accepted her challenge and promptly showed her how to crash a pink and purple bike after 20 feet. Although Angel didn’t complete the 20-lap challenge, he did get extra credit style points.

Down to business
SJC’s tasks for the week were putting a few finishing touches on the Renfro house, building a playset for kids, and painting murals on the walls of the two girls’ rooms. The playset was special since Emma Jones, SJC vice-president, raised $300 at her birthday party to help pay for the play set. Her donation paid for a really cool (and fast) slide, two swings, a trapeze, a ship steering wheel, a periscope, and a telescope.

The group was all set to go, but then they found out about another family that needed help not too far from the Renfros' home. A family needed a deck and wheelchair ramp for their 15-year old son, Bryson, who is confined to a wheelchair. Two of the SJC groups stayed on the Renfro site, and the other three groups headed off to build the deck. Starting with a bit of demolition on the existing deck, the SJC group was soon well on their way to getting their PhDs in post hole diggin’. Natalie Casal, after carrying several 80 lb. bags of concrete, took a break to make a new friend: “I had a blast playing and chatting with Callin, a six-year old with a gift for baseball.  We played baseball, spies, rock hide and go seek, classic hide and go seek, and tag. He confided in me his love for Olivia, who promptly became his girlfriend.” This is just what we were here for: helping people and making their lives better.

With their marching orders, tools, and supplies in hand, the groups headed to their respective worksites and work got underway. The week sped by as the groups on both sites were determined to finish the tasks at hand. Olivia “Lilo” Ford, a first-timer, shared, “Neither rain, sunburns, nor bugs in our eyes stopped us from working. In the end, it was all worth it.” Thursday was the longest day. Groups on both sites worked in the pouring rain until 5:30, but then they were rewarded with Megan Radosta’s (Class of 2015; SJC alumni leader) birthday dinner at the Santa Fe Mexican restaurant. Friday was a half day on the job-site, so during dinner, everyone made plans to finish all three projects.

Foods and flashlights
Learning construction is only part of the SJC way. Cooking is a major plus during the trip as each group has a night to prepare a meal for the other groups. Cooking, like construction, is so far beyond the kids’ comfort zones, yet they each willingly participate and pitch in. Under the tutelage of Dave Labbé, a former chef, the SJCers eat very well each night. Natalie Casal said, “Through SJC I’ve witnessed the power of construction to unite people, but I think food is also a huge factor in the camaraderie of the SJC community - from hard-boiled eggs in pasta sauce, to peas in spaghetti, to Doritos in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Each night after dinner, the groups break off for “flashlight journaling” and group discussions. This is where they learn about themselves and their groups through meaningful questions prepared by the student leaders, deep discussions, new friendships, lots of laughter, and even a few tears.

On Friday afternoon of the last work day, standing back and looking at the finished playset, Emma Jones, said, “I thought [raising money for the playset] was just a little thing I was doing, but after seeing the kids finally getting to play on the playset and hearing that they were out playing until 9:00pm the first night, I knew that these little things had truly made an impact on their lives and gave them something they had only dreamed of having.” Jesse, the Marvel-US group leader, was talking to Ambra as the kids were playing. With her hand over her mouth and holding back tears of joy, Ambra told Jesse that she was so happy that her kids were happy since they hadn’t been happy in a long time. Jesse may have cried just a little bit when she shared Ambra’s words with everyone else. John Radosta summed it up best when he said, “Building things for the people of Whitley City is only half of the reason SJC goes; the other half is building friendships and connections with those we serve.”

SJC’s efforts in Kentucky this year, despite many schedule changes and a whole lot of rain, were a success. In March, the grown-ups built a house for the Renfro family, and the HSP community donated over $11,000 dollars to make this a reality. In June, the kids built a “house” for the Renfro kids, and painted “flowerty” murals for the girls. Also in June, the SJCers built a deck extension and safety ramp for Bryson, a young boy in a wheelchair, going from a 6’ x 8’ deck to a multi-level, 12’ x 24’ deck. After tearful good-byes and countless hugs, the SJC “traveling circus” packed up the carnival gear and left the Renfro family to enjoy all of their happiness. Early Saturday morning, every person was worn out but oh, so happy as they turned out of St. Joseph’s Inn, passed The Dairy Bar, and headed towards the highway and home. And, Cracker Barrel.