This week’s Feels Like Home Blog post comes from Chikodili Agwuna, an ASP Summer Staff Alumni and creative writer. When you think of ASP, you likely think of homeowners and staff, but what about all the other folks in the community that make ASP summers possible? Hardware store employees, ice cream shop owners, local church members…they support ASP in ways that go unseen. Read on for Chikodili’s story!
We all love our ASP Families. The people we travel hours from home to meet and to help. The people we spend anywhere from 5 days to a whole summer getting to know and love. But there’s another group of ASPeople we meet over the summer: Community Members.
During Set-Up week, in between IHVs and setting up the center, the staff must get to know the people whose town they’ll be sharing for the next few months. From the hardware store, to the ice cream shop, to the local church, our community members welcome us into their lives and change ours by the end of the summer.
My first summer on staff was in a new county. Not only did that make finding projects close to the center difficult, it meant we were the pioneers of the ASP-community relationship. They didn’t have past staffs and work crews to compare us to, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. I was afraid of making a bad impression everywhere I went. I didn’t want to be the reason ASP wouldn’t be welcomed back to a county for following summers. So I tried playing it safe. If I didn’t make an impact on the community members, then there was no chance to make a bad one.
Needless to say, that did not last long.
The people of that county immediately welcomed us into their lives with open arms. Not only did they help us find projects, they took it upon themselves to make sure we adjusted to the county. They invited us to church, they introduced us to their families, they taught us so much about the history of the county we were in and why they were so grateful for ASP’s presence.
That first summer taught me so much about how important community members are to ASP. As a volunteer, I never realized just how necessary it is to maintain those relationships. Not just for ASP’s reputation in a county, but in order to turn a strange place into a home. Relocating for an entire summer after already being away at school was hard. Going from the porch, where I was surrounded by 120+ other staffers to an empty elementary school by a cow farm with 3 people I didn’t know well was harder. But turning this new situation into a home seemed impossible, and would have stayed impossible without the love and support of the community members I met along the way. I made relationships with people I had no idea I would meet. I became friends with the receptionist at the mechanic who worked on our truck. I had lunch with the owners of a little convenience store between the center and one of our projects. The more people I met, the more these empty schools in the “middle of nowhere” became home.
During my time on staff, the relationships I built with community members became invaluable. My first year as Operations Coordinator in Washington, VA, one of the guys at the local hardware store helped me find a picnic location on Tuesday of Week 1. My second year, in Lawrence, KY, not only did the church invite four hungry college students to their potlucks, Mike and Dana would have us over for dinner and movie nights. I went there on most of my days off because there was always a warm bed and a hot shower available for me at their house.
I’ve thought a lot about the community members I met as a staffer, and what ASP being in their counties meant to them. It had to be weird for new counties when ASP would set up shop in the local elementary school. Dozens of strangers drive into your town each week. In on Sunday and right back out on Saturday. And then at the end of the summer, they stop coming altogether. Did they miss us while we were gone? Or did the new quiet feel more like an off-season? Either way, when we drove back in the next summer, they were always more prepared than the last time. Ready to meet us where we were and love us as we are.
Without the support of community members, I imagine ASP would have a much more difficult time helping our families. They help us navigate these new places so we can find our families and the tools we need to complete our projects. But the relationships we build with them help us more.
One morning during my first summer on staff, I had a more difficult hardware list, so I went in early, before the hardware store was supposed to open. I bought extra breakfast sandwiches on the way for the men at Berry’s as a thank you for all the help they didn’t know they were about to give me. When I gave them the food, they took my hardware list and got everything I needed so we could eat breakfast together. We talked about everything from construction to the best ice cream flavors that morning. After that, those guys all had a special place in my heart and still do. Every community member I’ve met on ASP has a place in my heart. And because of them, Appalachia is home to me, and it always will be.
“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” – Miriam Adeney
Chikodili Agwuna is a former ASP Summer Staffer from Columbia, Maryland. She graduated in 2015 from Penn State University with a Creative Writing degree and now attends Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA working on a Masters in Screenwriting. Her ASP journey began when she volunteered in 2009, and was on staff from 2012-2014 in Washington County, VA; Lawrence County, KY; and Letcher County, KY. After her time on staff, she served as a Helping Hand and a Group Leader with her home church
Matt Headland is ASP’s newest member of the Volunteer Department. Throughout the year he focuses on new volunteer recruitment, retention, and media. This summer, however, you will find him driving throughout Central Appalachia with our Media Content Team. Follow along with his travels with his weekly blog, “Feels Like Home,” and on social media at @AppServProject.