This week’s Feels Like Home blog comes from Jamie Tews. Jamie is currently a Summer Staff Liaison and it’s her third summer on staff. She’s a senior at Indiana Wesleyan University. Connection, togetherness, and belonging…these things come easy in some situations, but in many others, they take time. So often on ASP, it’s the little gestures that bridge gaps. A question about the plants in the garden, a lesson about post-hole digging, or a PB & J could each be the key to a new friendship rooted in selfless love. Read on to learn about the moments on mountaintops that Jamie experienced…
Growing up, my parents stressed the importance of being together for dinner. Dinner was a time when all six of us would gather around a small, worn wooden table and talk. It was a place for us to come, however weary or joyful we were, and forgo the façades that we built up throughout the day. No matter how tense or heavy dinnertime began, it almost always ended with rosy cheeks, my mother’s cackling laughter, and our plates crusted with food that had been sitting out for too long. This table encouraged us to unravel, to unmake the masterpiece of our days and piece back together the parts that meant something. This table became a place where I felt fully known and fully loved – a feeling, which I have learned, is hard to recreate.
Throughout my seven years volunteering with and working for ASP, I have grappled with the concept of love and what it really means to love and be loved. Through relationships with homeowners, volunteers, community members, and fellow staffers, I have learned that love is not just about giving and receiving, it is about choosing to meet people where they are so that they can feel fully known and know that they are fully loved.
My first summer as a volunteer was in 2011 in Pike County, Kentucky. That summer, I worked with Alice, an elderly woman who was recently handicapped and needed a wheelchair ramp. I remember arriving at the home on the first morning, unsure about what I was going to experience over the coming week. After a few hours of digging holes and whacking away at rocks, we took a break for lunch. We pulled out our cooler of PB&J’s, apples, and chips, and knocked on Alice’s front door to share our meal with her. She graciously accepted our slightly matted, cooler-soggy sandwich, but as we pulled down her bumpy driveway at the end of the day, she hollered from her porch that she was going to make us a real meal tomorrow. The next morning, my crew gathered tentatively around the sandwich-making table in the cafeteria – should we make sandwiches or trust that Alice was going to provide us with a “real meal?” After deciding to make a few sandwiches just in case, we piled back into our van, which was already pungent with the stench of work boots and sweaty teenagers, and made the trek back to Alice’s home. Like the day before, we spent a few hours working, and as our stomachs began to grumble, we grabbed our sandwiches from the van and knocked on Alice’s front door. She opened the door before my group leader could finish the knock, told us to put our sandwiches away, and hurry in before the food got cold. As I rounded the corner into her kitchen, I saw her table completely filled with pans full of homecooked food. Mashed potatoes, biscuits, and an assortment of other southern staples danced before my eyes like an oasis, and I heard Alice laughing quietly as she realized that her gesture hindered our ability to speak.
We spent the next few hours smushed into chairs around her table. We ignored the annoyance of bumping sweaty elbows as we indulged in seconds and thirds, and our conversation and laughter echoed off the walls in her dimly lit home. This became a trend for the rest of the week – my crew would spend the morning working on Alice’s ramp, and she would spend the morning in the kitchen. And every day, in the early afternoon, she would beckon us indoors to her kitchen table, a place that quickly offered the same comfort as my table at home. When Friday afternoon faded into evening, and my group leaders peeled us away from Alice and her table, I tottered between vibrant joy and overwhelming sadness. Over the span of five days, Alice had shown me a love that was familiar but new all at the same time. It was a love that validated whoever we chose to be as we shared a meal around the table. Once again, I felt fully known and fully loved exactly as I was.
Last summer, I was on staff in Leslie County, Kentucky. Throughout the summer, we worked on the home of a man named Rex. After our first visit to his home in early June, we were unsure about whether or not we would be able to work there. There was so much to be done and arguably not enough time to finish it; however, something about his shy smile, quivering wave, and home that smelled sweetly of barbecue and tobacco encouraged us to sign onto the project. As the first few weeks flew by, Rex maintained a shy presence with us and the volunteers. We exchanged a few words about the music he played on the radio and the coffee that dripped steadily in his pot, but I didn’t feel connected to him in any extravagant way. As week four rolled around, and volunteers from North Carolina and Iowa rolled into our parking lot. These new crews immediately embraced the county with a fresh excitement. When I arrived at Rex’s house on Monday afternoon, I expected to find the crew working outside and Rex sitting on his couch, listening to the radio. Instead, I pulled up his driveway, my van rumbling as it fumbled over gravel and potholes, and saw Rex, his sister, Evelyn, and the work crew sitting on the front porch eating biscuits. As I shut my car door, the male group leader yelled to hurry up and grab one of Evelyn’s homemade biscuits before they were gone. This happened the rest of the week, and we began to plan our visits to the home around the emergence of whatever food Evelyn spent the morning preparing. About halfway through the week, I asked the group leader how he managed to get Rex outside and talking. He chuckled and said that he had asked Evelyn what she liked to cook – she said that she liked making biscuits and that she would make some for them, so she did, and Rex was quick to join in. The group leader didn’t make a grand gesture towards Rex and Evelyn; he simply decided to meet them where they were and love them as they stood there.
Homeowner Rex (on ladder) and a volunteer
I experienced this simple love again at the end of the week when I gave my staff share. As I stood in the atrium of the high school, unmaking all of the parts of me that are messy and imperfect, the folks from North Carolina and Iowa chose to collect the stories that spilled from my mouth and piece them back together in a way that made them look beautiful. These people, whom I had only known for a few days, chose to gather around me and love me, exactly as I was. Through the group leader’s relationship with Rex and both volunteer groups support of me, I learned about the vastness of a simple love – a love that is built upon homemade biscuits and tear-stained t-shirts. The vastness of a love that is built upon good intentions and the desire to walk each other home. They showed that in order to best love others, we have to recognize how deeply we are loved in every corner of our being.
Everyone who participates with ASP is part of a family – a family that chooses to love on others because we realize how ardently we need love in return. It is a family that recognizes the importance of meeting people right where they are, just as they are. It is a family that thrives because we continually exude the power of raw, human connection. This connection, this ability to remind others that they are fully seen and fully loved, is why I keep coming back to ASP. Throughout all my time in Appalachia, I have been embraced by people who choose to meet me, just as I am, and this powerful act of love is something that we should all strive to do.
Jamie Tews is a third year summer staffer, currently roaming Appalachia as a staff liaison. She’s a senior at Indiana Wesleyan University and a contributor to the Feels Like Home blog. She’s been on staff in Breathitt County and Leslie County, both in Kentucky.
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 traveling with our Advancement Field Team. Follow along with his travels with his weekly blog, “Feels Like Home,” and on social media at @AppServProject.