Editor’s note: Sophomore Amanda Stravinsky spent the summer of 2009 working with Appalachian Outreach, a program that works with families in poverty in East Tennessee.
Plastic bags rustle. Glassware clanks. Metal hangers ding and squeak as they’re pushed back and forth on four towering clothes racks painted in bright purple, blues and pink. Children sit on the concrete floor, shrieking and playing with the used toys that are getting a second chance to please a child.
The atmosphere is heavy with need. But when the people who visit Appalachian Outreach’s center, some of those needs have been met.
At least until the next month.
For low-income residents Jefferson City, Tenn., Appalachian Outreach is a place they can rely on to get essentials like food, clothing, and household items monthly at no cost to them. Another arm of the outreach program provides repairs to kitchens, bathrooms and roofs on the many outdated house trailers in the area.
In 2007, 25.9 percent of the Jefferson City residents who were employed still lived under the federal poverty level. Children living in poverty rounded to 30 percent, and in the 2000 census, 14.4 percent of the elderly lived under the poverty line.
This was why 16 college students from across the United States, ranging from Mississippi to Illinois, came to Jefferson City to help those who struggle with dire economic reality in a community where opportunities are very limited. They built houses, fed families, played and taught children from May 18-Aug. 1.
They worked with Appalachian Outreach (AO), a non-profit organization started in 1984 by two Carson-Newman College students.
“Appalachian Outreach connects people in need with those who have resources in order to help the less fortunate … AO strives to meet as many needs as possible,” says AO’s Web site.
Aside from home repair and providing the necessities to live every day a little better, a little brighter, AO provides a Bible camp for children and adolescents, age range from 2-year-olds to 14-year-olds. Since AO is across from a lower-income housing development, the organization hosts a Bible camp, “Kid’s Club”, to teach the kids about Christianity and feeds them lunch.
The camp ran from May 25-July 23, Mondays-Thursdays. The kids, sometimes more than 25 of them, came to a modular home designed for a low-income market; it was empty with bare, white walls and white and grey linoleum flooring, a kitchen, bathroom, and a few rooms where crafts and Bible lessons were conducted.
AO, like many other programs, understands that its mission of Christian conversion isn’t likely to be heard until people have at least minimal food and housing and attention that gives them some human dignity. That’s why Kid’s Club and other programs provide group activities, instruction in such areas as health and hygiene, and time that each child can simply be seen and heard. The biblical story of salvation is added to the mix every Thursday, and last summer nine young participants made a commitment to live Christian lives.
Daniel Leatherman came to AO for a week with his church group, Mulberry Baptist Church from Charlotte, North Carolina. He worked with Kid’s Camp, helping with games and crafts, and enjoyed getting to know the missionaries, kids, as well as his fellow church members.
“I grew closer to and learned many things about the people that we were helping,” Leatherman said.
He didn’t like saying goodbye when the week was over. There were new relationships formed and old ones strengthened.
“I would definitely do the trip again,” Leatherman said. “It was an awesome time and I recommend anyone, spiritual or not, to go help out some people less fortunate.”
Church groups like Leatherman’s youth group came to Appalachian Outreach to serve the community for a week. The majority of the groups would help with home repair, but the Kid’s Club missionaries would get some groups who would help them. Each church was welcomed to bring an idea of what they wanted to do at the club. Craft supplies and games were sometimes brought to the club for the kids to enjoy for the week. Some groups even supplied a special meal on Thursday (most of the time a pizza party). Water fights on Thursdays would be conducted from the middle of June to the end of the camp for the summer.
The camp not only was a place to have fun, but was a way for the kids to forget about their family lives.
At least for two hours.
The kids were continually bombarded with drugs, alcohol consumption, verbal and physical abuse, and the pressure of having a boy/girlfriend and being sexually involved. Many of them wore the same clothes for three days, their hair greased, fingernails dirty. The kids came the first week and didn’t know what to expect. By the end of the summer, they opened up to the missionaries and told the missionaries about their lives: family, boy/girlfriends (that would vary from day-to-day), the upcoming school year, and vacations.
Taira Smith, a Carson-Newman elementary education major, spent the majority of her time leading the Bible camp.
“The biggest victory I had was learning to work with middle school children,” Smith said. “It was very rewarding when after the summer one of the girls wrote me a letter about being able to turn down drugs from her friends.”
Jason Smitherman, a student of Mississippi State, he came to Appalachian Outreach to work with the kids who came to Bible camp, or so he thought. Upon coming to AO, the home repair team needed his help. He said there were a lot of challenges during the summer like “being put in a situation to have to make decisions when I [had] no idea what I [was] doing.”
Michelle Shackleford, then a student at the University of Southern Mississippi (now a Carson-Newman student), didn’t know much about home repair but was excited to learn. She wanted to make an impact on someone’s life.
“I was given more opportunities to love people as they are, as we were in their homes and spending more time with them, getting to know and love them as people,” Shackleford said.
Nichole Garner was a second-year missionary. She attends Carson-Newman College and began serving when she was a freshman. She worked on the home repair team and had a great experience, which was why she came back for another year.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you see the overwhelming joy the homeowner gets when they see the improvements you have made,” Garner said. “It just melts you inside to see the impact you have made on their everyday lives!”
She said her favorite house to work on was the Devoties. They were an older couple who had a dilapidated porch. Mr. Devotie needed wheelchair accessibility, so the home repair team built a ramp. They also did some bathroom repairs.
Garner loved spending time with them. She described the elderly couple having an upbeat spirit and joking around with each other. They were always happy and appreciative to see the team come to their house and work.
“I really hope I will be like that in about 70 years,” Garner laughs.
The summer was a summer of learning new things like how to handle 25 rambunctious kids for three hours of the day or how to safely work on a roof when the temperature exceeded 90 degrees. It was also a summer of fellowship. The missionaries formed a strong bond within the quick twelve weeks they knew each other.
For those who want to volunteer, Shackleford has a bit of advice: “It’s [God’s] world, his work, and he wants to lead you through it, not the other way around! Trust him … And enjoy the crap out of it!”