When people ask me what I did last week, I’ve been telling them, “I learned how to use a sledge-hammer.”
I spent last week in Wyoming County, West Virginia, where the Red Cross AmeriCorps from across Michigan came together and worked with the Appalachia Service Project, repairing homes. We were split into smaller groups to work on different projects and my group’s task was to construct a retaining wall. Erosion on the mountainside was threatening the family’s trailer, so we dug into the mountain, laying down railroad ties. It was exhausting work. I have never encountered so many rocks in such a small space. We had to dig about 300 cubic feet out of that mountain to lay down the support ties. Sometimes the rocks were so big we had to break them apart with sledge-hammers before we could remove them from the hole. (Hence my newly acquired sledge hammer skills.)
I can’t remember the last time my muscles ached that much – but it was incredibly satisfying. The face of poverty there is so overwhelming and the need too great for one person to solve. I often felt helpless. But sometimes all you can do is jump into a hole and get dirty. We can’t destroy poverty all at once, but our willingness to chip away at one rock at a time makes a world of a difference.
Sometimes in the mountains, you can go hours without sunlight. It all depends on what direction the “holler” faces. The holler my group worked in runs east to west and the last day we worked, the sun graced our work site the entire day. In many ways, this was a blessing—the first few days had been wet and misty. Before the clay-filled dirt dried out, every damp shovel-full was as heavy as a sleeping child. However, as the sunlight baked both dirt and bodies, the heat began to dry up some of our enthusiasm. Thankfully, every time I stepped into the shade feeling defeated, someone from the family we were working with (“our family”) lifted my spirits. Haley would poke her two-year-old, smiling face out the window and serenade us. Brenda shot us her million-dollar smile. Timmy insisted on buying us all snack wraps from McDonald’s (a good drive away out here, mind you). When I thanked Timmy for the food, he told me, “I just want to thank you. I’d just as soon be around all y’all as anybody else. Y’all are great people.”
We had a bit of a rough finish to one of our projects (that railroad tie was not co-operating), and I got incredible satisfaction from pounding that last piece of rebar into the retaining wall. But the real closure came as we lingered with the family. It was good just to stand and talk with the family and not have to think about getting back to work. Before we left, Timmy told us, “You should stop by if you’re ever in this part of West Virginia again. We’ve got extra beds. I can take you fishing.” He meant every word, and given the opportunity any of us would readily take that offer.