Saturday, March 15, 2014

Get Your Harlan Glow On

I thought I was dying this morning.  I know that sounds like a gross exaggeration, but I really can’t remember the last time being sick made me feel so exhausted.  I got up and got ready to go to the worksite, but felt like I was completely disconnected from my body.  When we got to the house the carpenters hadn’t arrived yet and while I sat in the passenger seat watching people play in the front yard and take pictures I felt like I was watching a movie.  It was so strange.  We had to wait almost two hours for the carpenters to arrive with supplies so that we could get started on our work.  By the time they got there I was out for the count.  I crawled into the back of one of our cargo vans and fell asleep for almost two hours.

Student coordinators and staff leaders

Selfie by the student taking our coordinator photo...

Waiting for the timer for a group photo

After we took smaller group pics of the seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshman, how could we leave out the alums???

No idea

When I woke up in was time for lunch.  We got in the vans and headed downtown to the visitors center for bathrooms and picnic tables.  Today was by far the most beautiful day we’d had and the students enjoyed the warm weather by leg wrestling in the grass after lunch.  What is leg wrestling?  Imagine arm wrestling except your laying on your backs head to toe and you interlock legs instead.  After eating my PB&J I climbed back into the van and feel asleep again.  I woke up to screaming laughter over the leg wrestling.  I decided at that point that I had to get up and move around or I was going to be comatose for the whole day.
So, what to do when you’re feeling sick and exhausted??  Climb on a roof I say!  It sounds like a really bad plan, but sitting on the roof with Katie “supervising” the students working on the roof may have been the best few hours of my trip.  The sun was bright, the air was clean and clear and we were surrounded by these amazing mountains.  In Philadelphia when I’m sick I need DayQuil….in Harlan the sun and the air did me just fine. 

This is one of my favorite pictures of the trip

At the end of the day these amazing 36 students had re-shingled almost half the roof and built 2/3 of a fence in addition to all of their other projects completed earlier in the week.  It was bittersweet driving away from the worksites knowing that we weren’t going back, but what a feeling of accomplishment knowing all they had done in just 3 ½ short days of work! 

The house as we left it

Absolutely nothing was done for this fence when we arrived and this is how the students were able to leave it.
We drove past this roadside waterfall every day on our way to the worksite

Of course  I had to stop and take a selfie!
We headed off to Harlan County High School where our guest from our cookout on Wednesday, Scott, is a teacher.  He had offered to give us a tour of the high school and we gladly accepted.  On past trips students had always gone to visit the campus, but had never had access to the inside.  The school is beautiful!  Really modern, an amazing gym, and three floors of classrooms.  It was built in 2006 and it consolidated several local high schools into one large school.  We weren’t allowed to take any pictures, but you can always check out their website here for more information.

Group photo outside the HCHS football stadium
For dinner tonight we invited the contractors over and Jason came with a few of his friends.  We ate pasta and played a bunch of games with them.  My personal favorite was a game called The Oracle.  Three people sit next to one another and they are The Oracle.  Anyone else can come up and ask the oracle a question.  The trick is that the three people must answer by only saying one word at a time in order, they have to do their best to make sense, and they have to keep going until they say the words “the oracle has spoken.”  We watched a few rounds of the game and then the students started chanting for Katie, Sean, and I to be the oracle.  We grudgingly agreed and then the funniest, most ironic thing happened.  The girl who was friends with Jason, that had just met us and knew nothing about us, came up to ask the last of the three questions we had to answer as the oracle and I kid you not, her question was, “Oh great oracle, where in West Africa can I find sweet, succulent man meat?”  Well, I had been talking about Landry regularly all week and the students knew that he was from Africa.  The room ERUPTED in laughter and of course she had no idea why.  I have no clue how we as the oracle actually answered that question, but I do know that I tried to end it a few times by saying THE to start the magic phrase “the oracle has spoken,” but my dear colleagues were just having too much fun with it and kept the game going for a while. 

After our friends left we settled in for reflection.  It was a long night as it was an opportunity for anyone to reflect back on their week and share how and when they felt they acquired the Harlan glow.  The Harlan glow is not really describable if you haven’t been on this trip, but there is just a special something you start to sense within yourself at some point on the trip.  I’m not sure how or when it was dubbed the Harlan Glow, but I love the term.  I didn’t share anything in tonight’s reflection because I just wasn’t ready yet to reflect, but I imagine once I’m home and have had time to process everything here it will come.  I’ve said it multiple times in my blogs, but I will say it again, I cannot get over what an amazing, understanding, wonderful group of people I have spent my week with.  The staff and the students, everyone, just incredible people and I continue to be so impressed with the students on this trip that I feel like the word impressed doesn’t do it justice.  I am looking forward to going to home tomorrow to my own bed that I don’t have to use a ladder to climb into and my family, but I wouldn’t have traded this week in for any other Spring Break option out there.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Say What You Need To Say

Staying in a cabin made for 20 people with 38 other people has finally caught up to my body and I am sick.  And it really wasn’t the day to be sick because we had an extra long day at the worksite followed by volunteering at the soup kitchen and dinner at the Huddle House.  Despite the frequent breaks and feeling like I wasn’t doing my part, it was a really productive day.  On the house we’d been painting all week we managed to remove all of the siding and the students removed all of the shingles from the roof. 

Removing the old shingles

Continuing with siding removal and cut-down

Lots of clean up!

Lining the roof in preparation for new shingles

What else to do when clean up is complete and you're getting ready to leave for the day??

With the first work site 1 house complete, students moved on to two new projects.  Some helped to insulate pipes in a crawlspace on a third house while others worked on digging holes for fence posts that would create a dividing line between the COAP house and the neighbors.  Our worksites have involved several animals that we’ve come to name and love.  At the fence house the neighbors have two dogs which we have named Lucy and Tiger.  Both are so frail and it’s clear that a lot of animals in the area are not well taken care of.  We’re not sure if the neglect is intentional or just a byproduct of poverty rates, but in any case some of the students ended up sharing their PB&J lunches with Lucy and Tiger.  In addition, there’s a yellow lab across the street from our painting house that we’ve dubbed Baxter and two roaming cats named Marcus and Gerry.

Lucy is in the far background on the left

For lunch today we left the worksite and went just down the road to a park.  We spent time swinging on swings, exploring the banks of the creek (or crick if you’re from Harlan), and getting to know each other even better.  The rest of the afternoon was spent continuing to paint and beginning to construct the fence.  When the work day ended our group was supposed to head into town and walk around for a bit before we volunteered a the local soup kitchen, Christ  Hands.  BUT, what we did instead was head over to the local hardware store and pick up tons of duct tape for a Project Appalachia tradition called Quack.  Quack happens by surprise every year on the trip and consists of everyone on the trip catching the student coordinators by surprise, duct taping them into submission and then duct taping them to each other.  I had the honor of sneaking the contraband back to the cabin in my backpack where the students caught the coordinators completely by surprise.

But, before I get ahead of myself, let me return to our Christ Hands experience.  Volunteering in a soup kitchen in Harlan is very different from a Philadelphia experience.  We often find lines down the block and around the corner, and sadly sometimes have to close the doors before everyone has been served.  In Harlan when the doors open there are just a handful of folks and everyone seems to know everyone.  One of the soup kitchen volunteers, Glenn, shared with us many stories about the history of different hymns and then invited some of our students to sing to the people waiting to eat before a prayer was said and food was served.  The students sang Amazing Grace and it was a beautiful moment to share the song with the students, volunteers, and people waiting to be served.

Our student servers with a regular volunteer

The dishwashers

I just really loved this building, which happens to be right outside of Christ Hands

I spent much of the night talking to Glenn who, based on a story he told me about being in high school when WWII broke out, had to be in his late eighties.  Despite this, he talked about how he volunteered with several nursing homes in the area singing to the older people.  He told me about his daughter who is a professional photographer and his work in photography, advertising, and service in the Air Force.  When I told him that I would be returning to KY in a few weeks for a conference in Louisville he told me all about this great Norman Rockwell inspired art exhibit at a local hospital that he photographed once and how I had to check it out if I had time.  His stories warmed me and made me feel like I was having a conversation with one of my own grandfathers, both of whom passed before I was old enough to have such conversations with them. 

When the meals were complete and one of the older volunteer women had to flash the lights on and off to get us to close out our conversations with each other and with the people who came for meals, we slowly departed and headed off to the Huddle House for a long-awaited southern diner meal.  I had southern smothered biscuits with eggs and a peanut butter milkshake….sounds strange, but it was delicious!

Huddle House deliciousness...Waffle House, you may have met your match!
Back at the cabin we welcomed two officers from the Sheriff’s Department who talked to us about what their days are like and the major issues that they see in Harlan County.  They talked about the devastation of drug addiction and poverty, but were clear to talk about the exploitation of these issues in the media.  They referred specifically to the 20/20 episode I referenced in my very first post and how many people in Harlan and the surrounding areas were upset that despite their efforts to show all angles of Appalachia, the show had chosen to only highlight the extreme poverty and drug addiction that affects a small portion of the larger population. 

After the officers left one of the students asked the coordinators if he could share a song he had written with the group before reflection.  They happily agreed not knowing that the song would end with the word QUACK and chaos ensued.  There really aren’t words for Quack, but I think the pictures and video speak volumes.

Reflection tonight focused on saying what you need to say.  All week long I’ve listened to students kind of belittle their own feelings or experiences in comparison to how they see others’ experiences, particularly the lives of those in Harlan.  I listened to a TED Talk once where the speaker asked the audience who was stressed and dealing with a lot.  Then she asked everyone to look at the person next to them and determine if their situation was harder than that of the person to their right or left.  Her point was that hard is hard and everyone’s experience is relative.  I told the students all of this and said that I hoped they could figure out a way to give themselves permission to feel how they feel without the need to compare themselves to others.  That I hoped they could see not only the struggles of others, but the strengths as well….I suppose the social worker in me showed up big tonight, but I felt like it was what I needed to say and that was the point of reflection after all.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

You Raise Me Up

Today was probably the most powerful day I’ll have on this trip, so powerful in fact that I’m actually writing it a day later.  We started out our day at the worksite.  Work group 2 returned to the painting house and continued to paint walls, trim, and the dreaded popcorn ceilings inside, while tearing down siding outside.  Work group 1 hauled all the garbage from the foreclosure house out to dumpsters and then set to work on insulating pipes in a crawl space and digging holes for a fence on a third house on the block.

One of our faithful contractors, Jason, giving pointers on removing siding.

Sam, one of our student coordinators

This is the second full dumpster of the afternoon

A lone pool ladder from the backyard sans any sign of a pool
We ended our day early today in order to visit several local elementary schools in the Harlan County School District to speak with eighth grade students about getting ready for high school and preparing for college.  We split into five groups and my group went to Green Hills Elementary.  To get to our school we had to drive up and over a mountain and I’ve never seen anything like what we saw on our drive.  Everything in Harlan was pretty much thawed from the storm we had on Monday, but as we climbed the mountain the water that was freely running down the rock sides started a reverse melting process as we ascended.  The water gave way to ice and then to thick, sharp icicles hanging from every crevice.  We moved from sun to shade and then into complete fog as the clouds hadn’t lifted yet from the top of the mountain.  At the top we felt like we had literally been transported to a completely different location.  It was wild.

Our visit with the students was powerful.  They were shy and a little snarky, pretty typical eighth graders, but their principal shared with us that our students had the highest standardized test scores in the county.  He was so proud of their performance and almost every one of the seventeen students at this incredibly small school said they were already thinking about going to college and where they may want to go.  Our student shared their experiences at La Salle and also their challenges in getting to college themselves.  While the students didn’t say a lot, I think it was a positive experience for both groups of students.  After meeting with the students the principal gave us a tour of the school.  All students receive free breakfast and lunch.  I was particularly struck by a woman we met who does support for students that come into the first grade behind in reading and writing.  Because of the size of the school she is able to spend half an hour individually with each student, helping to get them up to speed and succeed in the classroom.

Hanging out after our school visit waiting for the cookout

Absolutely love this picture of one of our musicians, Jake

For dinner we had a cookout on the grill and welcomed a guest to the house.  Scott is a teacher at Harlan County High School and he happened to be volunteering at the soup kitchen on Tuesday when half of our students were there volunteering.  One of our students spent a long time talking to Scott and invited him to have dinner with us.  We stood in a circle outside on the edge of our hilltop, holding hands while Scott asked for prayer requests and then said grace over our meal.  It was yet another moment that highlighted how special people and moments seem to be in Harlan.  That Scott came to our cabin and then asked who we needed to pray for was touching and showed exactly what the people here are all about. 

Reflection was around a campfire expertly constructed and kept alive for several hours by one of our students.  It was extraordinarily powerful and personal as “You Raise Me Up” was played and rocks from around our cabin were given to each member of the trip.  We were asked to think about who had been a rock for us in our lives and for whom we hoped to be a rock.  I was blown away by the touching, personal stories shared by everyone around that campfire.  Some of the stories were uplifting, some were heartbreaking, but all of them were so genuine.  I sat on my picnic table, away from the fire so my face wasn’t brightly lit, and quietly cried on and off throughout the entire reflection.  I was so touched by many of the stories shared and personally connected with some of them in a way that caught me completely off guard.  I chose not to share in this reflection, partly because I was feeling a little overwhelmed and partly because I wanted to ensure as a staff leader that the focus remained on the students and their experience.  I realize now as I’m writing this that even though I didn’t share anything out loud I gained a lot of insight and am even now still processing the experience.  My words here don’t do the night justice, but powerful is just the tip of the iceberg.

Campfire post reflection


More s'mores!!