Life is slow in Jonesville this week as staffers are out in the counties preparing for volunteers to arrive. While staffers were completing their set-up week, the Story Gathering Team decided to visit some homeowners in Lee County from our year-round home repair program. I had been looking for a moment to suggest meeting with the homeowner I was lucky enough to serve the last time I volunteered with ASP, and this was the perfect opportunity to do so. 

Since the moment I found out I would be in this position for the summer, I have been itching to write about Ms. Mary and tell her story. Mary is a homeowner ASP has served since 2018. Her siding, bathroom, and kitchen have all been lovingly repaired by volunteers. I had the privilege of spending my week volunteering with her back in March of this year. The week was a monumental experience I will always carry with me.  

Mary lives alone, apart from her cats, dogs, chickens, and guinea fowls. When my work crew first arrived this Spring, Mary seemed a bit closed off but revealed that she had been going through a rough patch for quite some time. As she opened up, we understood how she got to where she is today. Mary was forced to leave the area her family is from in 2005 due to an increase in crime and lost her husband sometime after moving to Lee County. The past year has not been easy for her as she faced countless hardships.  

Asking for help from ASP was just another step in Mary’s fight. This act of asking is not always easy, but it’s admirable to do so and equally heroic as getting the job done on your own. Mary did everything in her power to better her situation. People can only work with the hand of cards they are dealt, and Mary is someone whose deck wasn’t always in her favor. Many of her hardships came from living in Appalachia, from dealing with rural healthcare to the effects of drug epidemics. Living in Appalachia is an uphill battle with ruts and valleys you may never find your way out of. Still, the people keep going and fighting. Mary is a prime example of this resilience. 

At the time we were working on her house, the most recent event struck when her brother fell ill and sadly passed away about halfway through our weeklong project. Mary only had one brother, her closest sibling in age of 12 children. As we worked on the flooring, we witnessed Mary go through this loss, listening to her express the heartache and comforting her. She showed us old photos, reminiscing and celebrating his life, and prayed with the group. What I didn’t expect out of this tragedy was for Mary to still take care of us, these strangers in her home who were placed in her lap amidst this tough time.  

Mary would help us lay flooring when we needed an extra hand or offer her two cents when troubleshooting funky measurements. Our work crew was always guaranteed to be hydrated with orange Gatorade and nourished with Mary’s wisdom during lunchtime. As we comforted her during this tough time, she ensured that we were comforted as well. Somehow, through all her pain, she looked at this group of young college students and told us to keep going and never to let life get us down. Mary led by example. She showed us that it’s possible to keep fighting even when times are hard.  

Her resilience is most obvious when it comes to her home. She fought for her home and land, finding ways to settle even when all the odds were against her. During our most recent encounter while I visited her this past week, Mary told the story of how she came to own her home. She negotiated the plot of land once used for timber processing, found an abandoned mobile home in the coalfields of Kentucky, and worked with her brother to make her home what it is today. Even when her finances were tight or her circumstances looked like they wouldn’t pan out, she made it work and continues to do so.  

Mary’s home is more than just her living space, but a point of pride that she has packed with her memories. During my time volunteering, Mary showed me her photo album capturing the installation of her home. As we flipped through the pages, I watched the land slowly be rid of thick brush, then leveled out with dozers, and finally her home being hauled in. She took care to point out all those who helped her and where she got piles of lumber from. I remember her repeating that she wanted to capture these photos because memories are all we have left in the end. All the people who helped her and spent time in her home have become a part of it. Not only does her home provide her safety, but also a place to curate a collection of relics from a life full of compassion and community that make fighting for what she has built even more worth it.  

Volunteering with Mary in March didn’t go as I expected it. It was tough and emotional. We got our job done and her kitchen looked great, but none of us wanted to leave her. We had grown close and felt a sense of responsibility to one another, almost like family. The only thing that made it easier to leave that driveway was knowing that Mary would keep on fighting. I told her that I would see her this summer, wishfully hoping that I would land the position I was in now and would be able to spend more time with her. Seeing Mary this week reassured me that she would be okay without us there. Of course she will be. She is used to persevering. 

Taylor Beam
Story Gathering Intern