Putting Faith into Action in Appalachia

by | Jul 20, 2017

By Ruslan Gabidoulline

The problem for millions of high schoolers across America each summer is “finding a good way to spend it.” For some, summer is a time to catch up on their favorite shows. For others, it’s a time to find a job and make money to contribute to their college fund (or so their parents hope). Yet, for a number of high schoolers in the diocese, summer is a time to put their faith into action and give back.

Each year, for one week in June, the diocese sends a group of high schoolers on a mission experience with the Appalachia Service Project, a group that organizes volunteer home repair projects. The goal of the trip is to provide a way for youth and adults to serve those in need and forge new relationships—all while becoming the literal hands, feet and hearts of Christ in the world. The students experience the sweat of home repair and the power of relationships, and take home a newfound compassion both for their community and for the world.

“My favorite part of the trip,” says Maria Aschenbrener, a member of St. Alban’s Church in the District, “is being on site and helping the family, because I really feel like I’m doing something with my summer, rather than just sitting around and not being productive.” Maria was not alone in this sentiment—all of the members of this years’ mission experience felt a joy in their work, which consisted of digging a ditch around a house to prevent flooding, repairing water damage to floors, replacing roofs and installing insulation. “It is a lot of hard work—but it’s also really fun,” echoes Victor Long-Sires, who is a member of St. Columba’s Church in the District. “And you’re actually helping people, so it’s not like you’re just doing work for nothing: you’re actually making someone’s life better.”

Houses were not the only things being built—throughout their experience, participants built relationships, both with each other and with the local community. “I’m really glad to have made new friends this week,” says Henry McBride, who attends St. Albans School in the District. The mission experience is truly a collaboration between a variety of churches across the diocese: Participants came from churches all over the District and surrounding Maryland counties. Katie Farr, who is a member of St. Alban’s Church, said her favorite part of the trip was the camaraderie: “It’s really nice to spend time with everyone because most of us are from different churches.”

Through the relationships they built, participants found that they were able to experience God. Christian McKee-Alexander, a member of Christ Church in Rockville, said that he found God in the faces of people that he was able to help. “You know that there’s someone out there looking out for these people,” he says, “because even in the hardest of situations they’re still so positive, so enthusiastic, so loving. There’s no other explanation for it.”

The values learned on the trip have left a lasting impact on its participants. Alfred Chahine, an Adult leader on the trip, noted that “the kids have all been positively impacted” by the trip. “Developing a bond with the families has been tremendous for the youths.” Participants left on the mission experience to help families in need, yet those same families were able to help the participants learn about themselves. Volunteers returned to their communities with a renewed sense of commitment. Christian said that on his return to Rockville, he hopes to “Cherish the gifts” given to him by God, and that he will “work to help others reach that too.” Ayomi Wolff, a member of St. Columba’s, says that she learned “the ability to give back” to her community. “I have a lot of privilege and wealth that I can give forward,” she says, “so it is my job as a privileged human being to give to those who are less fortunate.”

The most valuable takeaway for participants was that their efforts can make a difference. “You don’t need money or an important background to change the world or to change someone’s life,” noted Maria. “You yourself coming here and giving your time is so incredibly important and helpful to the people here.” She concludes, “I want people to know that you don’t need to be incredible to do incredible things.”

Perhaps they left their communities as self-proclaimed “un-incredible” kids, but having helped change someone’s life for the better over the course of the trip, this group of high schoolers returns home just that—incredible.

Registration for next year’s ASP mission experience opens October 1. For more information, please visit the youth programs page of the website. If you have any questions, please contact Iman Syler, the diocesan youth missioner.

Ruslan Gabidoulline is a graduate of St. Albans School heading to college at the University of California Berkeley, where he hopes to study statistics and business, with a minor in journalism. He has published a prize-winning essay in Bethesda Magazine and has previously written for St. Albans Gyre.