If the last couple weeks have been like a family get together—with music and laughing and stories and food—then this week was the soft hum of crickets after everyone has left.  

Last Friday was Load Up Day, which was when all the staffers left to go to their centers. They all drove to Johnson City, Tennessee to pick up everything they would need to set up their centers. They walked through the main office to pick up paperwork, signs, polos, name tags, and more paperwork.  

Then they received the vehicles they would be driving for the summer, vans and trucks, and drove to the warehouse. The warehouse became an assembly line for the vehicles to be loaded with all sorts of tools—power tools, ladders, safety equipment, and more. Then they picked up merchandise for volunteers, and each staff drove off to their counties throughout Central Appalachia. 

After Load Up Day, the Story Gathering Team drove back to the Jonesville ASP center, where training had been, to spend the week with the center staff there. For most centers, this week was Setup Week. The staff prepared themselves and their centers for when volunteers will arrive next week. They visited homeowners, submitted projects to county health departments, organized offices, completed paperwork, and planned out evening gatherings.  

But they also found time to rest before their summer begins. Rather than 7:15 devotions, they woke up for 8:30 meetings. Rather than leading Evening Gatherings, they followed hiking trails through beautiful Virginia land.  

On Tuesday night, seven of us—the four center staffers and the three Story Gathering Interns—drove an hour to take a hike together. We walked along a delightful trail, over whistling creeks, and across precarious rocks. I was grateful for the chance it gave me to get to know the staff. They are studying things they’re passionate about, from architecture to German to Spanish to music. It was a gift to hear how working with ASP relates to their passions.  

One staffer said that they’re studying architecture because they care about the built environment that affects how people live. With ASP, they can tend to people’s built environments. Another staffer said they had learned about how substandard housing can cause chronic stress. On one of her first times volunteering with ASP, she helped with improvements to a house where a grandmother was raising her grandchildren. At the end of the project, the grandmother said, “I love that my grandchildren can have their birthday parties here now.”   

The hike ended at a swimming hole known as “The Devil’s Bathtub.” About fifteen feet deep, it collects water before a twirling trickle carries the water down the creek. Several of us decided a swim would be a nice cool down after the steamy hike. It was colder than we could have guessed. After I jumped in feet first, I launched myself up and out of the water. I scampered out of the water and gasped for warm air. Of course, after we caught our breath, we jumped in again. It was a thrill we didn’t want to experience only once.  

It seemed to me like this week was a good deep breath for the staffers before jumping into the deep end of the summer. Of course, they can’t wait to be leading the centers and serving people, but it will be busy. They’ll be coming up for air occasionally, with hikes and days off and hammock naps, but those will be short breaths. This week gave them the chance to take a deep breath of rest. 

Another day was full of rain, which meant the staffers worked on paperwork all day. After I made myself some lunch at the main building, I walked outside and down the steps that lead to one of the dormitory buildings. Luckily most of the walk was under an overhang of some sort. Then, all of a sudden, a streak of orange flew through the corner of my eye. I looked over and saw the upright tail of what could only have been a fox. I didn’t know if I believed my eyes. And before I could decide whether I did, it had raced into the woods. Whatever it was, it brightened my day with its audacious orange coat.  

I found a chair under a deck that overlooks the woods around the center. I sat down to start working on this blog. After sitting there for a while, the corner of my eye was startled yet again. A flaming orange beak had glided out of the rain, joining me under the overhang not eight feet away. By then I had recognized what kind of bird it was. Now, I’m sad to say I do not know my birds. Most of the time, feathers and chirps aren’t enough for me to know what I’m looking at. But this was an easy one. Its raging red feathers called out its own name before I could think about it. The cardinal sat there, not eight feet away, for a good while. I assume it was the quiet of being out of the rain that kept it comfortable.  

Setup Week reminded me to slow down and look around. Of course, the rest of the Story Gathering Interns and myself had work to do this week. We edited pictures, interviewed staff and homeowners, posted on social media, planned out our travel schedule, and wrote blogs. But we also had the chance to hang out with the Jonesville staff and rest.  

The slowed pace allowed me to appreciate the place around me—the animals, the hills, the plants, the people—that I sometimes forget to notice. It reminded me why people want to keep living here even when things are tough: because it’s a beautiful place, full of deep breaths and startling streaks of orange.

Isaac Wood
Story Gathering Intern