Twenty years ago this month, four Boston College undergraduates piled into a car and drove 850 miles to rural Kentucky to spend spring break working with Catholic missionaries among the Appalachian poor.
It was the first of what would become an annual series of trips by Boston College students to serve the needy in the rural South. The Appalachia Volunteers program that began with four friends in a station wagon now sends more than 400 students each spring break to tutor needy children, visit the sick and elderly, and build homes for the poor across America.
Next week, on the evening of Feb. 26, 460 Appalachia Volunteers will pack St. Ignatius Church for a Mass celebrated by University Vice President and Special Assistant to the President William B. Neenan, SJ, then set out in 35 vans for 20 different destinations from Maine to North Carolina.
University Chaplain Richard Cleary, SJ (center) with Appalachia Volunteers Saramarie Foody '99, Tracy Madsen '99, and Bill Kerrigan '99 (seated); and Bryan Head '00, Courtney Gieffers '00, Chaplaincy Administrator Mary Hehir and Matt Mannering '00. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"I call it the 'other' spring break," said Chaplaincy Administrator Mary Hehir, who for the past 14 years has helped student organizers with bookkeeping and logistics.
"These are the kids who don't head into Logan to go to Cancun or Fort Lauderdale," she said. "They're gone for 10 days, sleeping on floors, building homes for the poor or working with children. And they raise every dime themselves."
She noted students this year have raised close to $140,000 for the Appalachian trip by knocking on doors, speaking from the pulpits of their churches at home, and staging meal-card "point drives" on campus.
"It's a huge undertaking, but every one of the student volunteers has pulled his or her weight in terms of fund-raising and getting the word out," said William Kerrigan '99, of Clinton, Mass., one of six student coordinators of this year's trip.
Kerrigan will be among a crew of 28 volunteers traveling to New Road, Va., a small African-American community on the Chesapeake Bay where many residents earn meager incomes shucking oysters and few homes have indoor plumbing. Kerrigan and his fellow volunteers will participate in a community development project, tearing down old houses to make way for new homes with running water and sewer hookups.
"It's very satisfying," said Kerrigan, who will be making his fourth trip to New Road. "You learn a lot about what you really need in life, rather than what you think you need. I've never felt as at home anywhere as I have down there."
John Dinneen, SJ, recalls hearing similar remarks from some of the earliest Appalachia Volunteers when he was University Chaplain from 1979-89.
"They would come back with a sense of how fortunate they were, but also with a sense that happiness does not depend on material things," he said.
Student coordinator Tracy Madsen '99 of Boulder, Colo., traveled last year to Lynchburg, Va., where her crew of 30 slept nights on the floor of an Evangelical church and spent days building houses alongside the pastor.
This year she will be among a group of 28 traveling to the Chesapeake Bay community of Cat's Breath, Va., to help clear space for new homes. "There's a lot of work to do," Madsen said. "But it's so exciting that it makes all the work worthwhile."
No faculty or staff accompany the students, who drive themselves in rented vans to destinations across the country. Cellular One has donated cellular phones for each of the 35 vans as well as free phone service for the 10-day trip.
For many, the Appalachia Volunteer experience may be a life-long memory, but for some it has been a life-altering experience. Daniel Leahy '82, '91 M.Ed., traveled as a student on three of the first Appalachia trips to a farm run by the Glenmary Missionaries in Vanceburg, Ky. He said the experience had a profound impact on his life.
"It gave me the chance to see another part of America, the poor people in our own backyard," said Leahy, who is now a BC chaplain. "It set the tone for everything I've done in my life since then."
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