a monthly e-newsletter
Last month, Alumni Connections asked alumni to submit stories of their favorite service experiences while at BC. The following were submitted by alumni.
Gina Laidlaw Berger '80
I was on the second trip that ever went to Appalachia. I was in Vanceburg, Kentucky. While there, I had my birthday. A young man we met there was deeply touched by the Holy Spirit and had quite the dramatic conversion. As both a birthday gift to me and a symbol of his conversion, he gave me his rather large belt buckle. He said, "Here, Gina. I want you to have this. I used to pry men's jaws open with it."
I still have the buckle and think often of this man and his gift of new life in Christ.
Mary Ellen Roche '80
In addition to the great honor of singing every Sunday night at the standing room only Mass led by Fr. Fred Adelmann in the basement of Welch Hall from 1977-80, I am proud to say that I was part of the very first Appalachia Volunteer group.
I attended BC with my dear childhood friend, Gregg Cassin ’80. Gregg went on a Marist volunteer experience in Appalachia during the summer of 1978. It was offered, I believe, to identify potential recruits for a Marist vocation. Though the vocation didn't pan out, Gregg found it so amazing that he asked me and several others to participate in such a trip over our February break in 1979. Most of our friends were going to Florida and Bermuda for a traditional spring break and, at the time, this was a fairly outlandish proposal. There was no Habitat for Humanity then (or at least we hadn't heard of such). But Gregg was very convincing and 13 or so of us signed on. I remember hosting organizational meetings at my apartment in the Reservoirs (now Walsh Hall, I believe). In the weeks before our trip, we held fundraisers including coffee houses and bake sales. We somehow talked people into loaning us two vans (bald tires and all) and, before we knew it, we were barreling white-knuckled through a blizzard on our way to Vanceburg, Kentucky.
Once there, we were plugged into two ongoing Marist projects. The first involved building an additional room for a family living in a one room house. It would be more accurate to say that the mom, dad, baby and grandmother lived inside - the other 6 children lived in a tipped-over milk truck next to the house. Yes, you read that right. I was stunned to see this kind of poverty in the United States. I was also shocked to meet people who looked to be elderly and learn they were 30- or 40-somethings, visibly worn down by hard lives, lack of dental and medical care, smoking habits, and poor nutrition. But their spirits were great, and they were very generous with what they had. I remember one day that we forgot to bring bread for our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which we were going to assemble on site. This family, with a milk truck for a bedroom, came to us with 1/2 loaf of bread - all they had for the week to come - insisting we take it. It may not sound like much but it was extremely generous based on their situation. Needless to say, the guy that forgot the bread felt awful and brought a replacement loaf plus some other items to repay them the next day.
The other project was the addition of indoor plumbing for a different family. They had no running water. Again, I had never seen this up close. They had an outhouse and used old newspaper for toilet paper because the latter was too expensive to buy. I remember meeting a 16-year-old girl who was counting the days until she turned 18 so she could leave the hollow, join the Army and (thereby) get to see New York City. She announced her plan so proudly to each of us, smiling broadly with half the teeth we had. So many teeth gone, even at this young age. I remember thinking that she was only a few years younger than us, yet how radically different our life and opportunities were. It felt so wrong, so unfair. For her, it was the Army, working in the tobacco fields or ending up like her mom, pregnant at a young age and living in poverty in the hollow.
The night before we left Vanceburg, we were invited to a songfest and prayer service at their local church. I was asked to sing, which was a huge honor and great fun.
The other strong memory I have is of our close quarter living situation, in which we slept in bunk beds and couldn't take showers or wash our hair for the week. There was a sink but only cold water. It was absolutely freezing there and we didn't have hairdryers (would have blown the electrical system). The ensuing hygiene challenges became a running joke, but it built camaraderie and was yet another reminder of all the conveniences—like hot water and showers—that we all took for granted back home.
My experience in Appalachia forever shaped me as a person. It taught me that deep, relentless poverty exists in America (ironically, Diane Sawyer just had a special on Appalachia and so little seems to have changed). It helped me understand the incalculable value of giving yourself for the benefit of others. I wasn't a carpenter and it would have been easy to opt out, yet I had much to offer with the skills I did have. I realized that I was blessed beyond measure, eliminating my youthful lament that my struggling-to-make-ends-meet family was somehow less than because we didn't have the material wealth of others around me.
But even more than these lessons, today I see that the Appalachia Volunteer Group not only exists 30 years later but enables more than 700 people each year to experience what we few did back in '79. It shows me the enormous power of the one person, Gregg Cassin, who founded this organization. What an impact this has had on the lives of so many others—all those thousands of volunteers over the past 30 years and all the countless people in Appalachia, New Orleans, Haiti and myriad other locations around the globe who've been assisted by these volunteers. What one man can do!
Gregg, by the way, continues to be an activist for change and support of people living with HIV/AIDS and other communities in need.
Thanks for asking for my volunteer experience and please pass along the idea to honor Gregg. It was a great trip down memory lane. :)