The final pieces of flooring go down. The cement finally finishes setting at the end of a ramp. The paint dries and the trim goes back up, leaving a room looking sharp. Van doors slam and engines rev for the last time as volunteers pack up from the worksite. It’s Week 7 for ASP’s 50th Summer, and for most of our centers throughout central Appalachia, the summer home repair program is coming to a close. The Summer Staffers frantically gather extra material and return it to their hardware stores. They run from home to home, making sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed on their paperwork. Next week, facility managers will perform their final walkthroughs of schools, churches, and community centers to make sure their facility is left spic and span by our staff and volunteers. Projects and summers come to end, and our staffers will drive their tool and equipment laden vans back to our headquarters in Johnson City so they can be cleaned and prepared for Summer number 51.
But before these staffers depart their summer centers, they will have to say goodbye to families and community members they’ve come to know and love. When staffs first meet families in May or June, they’re strangers. We don’t know the story of every knick-knack in their house. When the staff in Wise, Virginia first met Peanut, they didn’t know he was dubbed the “Best in the West” of all trumpeters in the county. It’s only with time spent sitting on porches and chatting over Cokes that our staff learns the names of all the grandchildren and the dogs on a property, or receive advice on which swimming hole to visit on a day off. But by the end of the summer, many staffers could rattle all of this information off in no time.
Perhaps an even stranger still aspect of this final week of the summer is on Saturday morning. Once this final group of volunteers clamber into their vehicles and leave, that’s it. When I was on staff, the moment of staring at an empty parking lot and knowing that it wouldn’t be full on Sunday night was the first time I understood that the summer was well and truly over. A sense of serenity mixed with disbelief rained down on me as I realized I had completed a summer on staff. But how did it happen? What kept it going?
At the heart of what has made this summer and the previous 49 summers possible is transformation, both internally for the people encountering ASP, and externally on hundreds of homes throughout Appalachia.
For some staffers, the transformation of this summer is self-belief. I know it was for me! Something we talk about frequently during summer staff training is how God doesn’t call upon the equipped to do his work. Instead, God equips those who are first called to serve. During my first ever week of summer staff, I was filled with hesitation and worry. I had no clue that by the end of the summer, I’d be confident in my ability to instruct people three times my age to repair homes. Summer staff was an empowering and transformational experience for me. But staff is just one group of people transformed by this ministry.
The families that ASP works alongside take a radical leap at the beginning of the summer. They’re letting a group of strangers come into their home and take on large-scale repairs. Having ASP volunteers around for a summer can be hugely transformational. Outwardly, their homes are transformed by groups from all over the country who make floors sturdy, exits safe, and leaky-roofs dry. But inside the hearts of these families, a bigger transformation takes place. There’s hope where they may not have been before. There’s belief that takes root. One of my very good friends happens to be a woman in Kentucky that ASP has had the pleasure of working for the last two summers. This family has four children, and they live on a beautiful property that they’ve turned into a working farm, featuring goats, ducks, and vegetables. Because of the work ASP volunteers have done, their house is no longer classified as “substandard.” I’ve had the pleasure of visiting them a few times this summer, and what they told me about their experience brought tears to my eyes. Their children can’t stop asking when they’ll be able to work on people’s houses. These kids have learned what service is all about, and now they ask if they can help a classmate whose parents are going through a hard time, or if they can run up the road and drop off some food for a family who needs it. These kids, the oldest only 12 years old, are generous. Their mom told me that this lesson was instilled in them by the youth who worked on their home these past two summers.
While this 50th Summer has been transformative for all who encountered this ministry, this last week of volunteers does signify a shift for our families. New folks won’t come next week, but the beauty of ASP’s founder Tex Evans’ vision was that ASP would be about relationships. We do construction on homes, but we also build impactful relationships during these summers. When ASP staff leave a community, those relationships don’t just disappear. Through the power of Facebook, cell phones, and good ol’ pigeon mail, bonds developed during an ASP summer continue to flourish. That family in Kentucky I talked about? I speak with them regularly, checking in on how the farm is going and sending them updates about my life. Last week, I met a family in Tennessee who keep a book of the names and addresses of everyone who worked on their home, including their addresses, phone numbers, and special messages from each of them.
What has kept ASP going for 50 years is undoubtedly God, but what God may delight in most about this ministry is the transformative, life altering relationships built all while repairing homes in central Appalachia.
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.