HARLAN, Ky. – When lunch lady Billie Noe would give a huge plate of spaghetti and extra fries to Harlan (Ky.) Independent High School basketball player Anne Corey Johnson, she never expected that a few years later Johnson would be climbing over the roof of her house to fix a few things.
Johnson, now a junior at Asbury University, spent four weeks last summer coordinating a crew of volunteers who repaired and improved Noe’s house so that her husband, Robert, who has diabetes and congestive heart failure, can maneuver in his electric wheelchair.
The youth and adults, who were volunteering with Sharing with Appalachian People (SWAP), a home repair program of Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes, added a carport and a roofed back porch and replaced the rotting kitchen floor. But just as important to Noe as the home improvements are the relationships built in the process.
As the crew worked, Noe fostered those connections with food like fried chicken, cornbread, macaroni and cheese and applesauce cake, served with a heaping helping of conversation.
“These groups have been my godsend,” Noe said in July. “When they leave on Friday, I feel like my kids are leaving. I got their addresses so I can send them Christmas cards. I robbed the bees yesterday so that I can give them honey. It’s amazing that they give up their time with what they could do at home, to come and help strangers – but we’re not strangers when they leave.”
Volunteers, predominantly from churches in eastern U.S., have been coming to Appalachia every summer since 1985 to work with SWAP. Last summer, 871 volunteers worked on 80 houses at SWAP’s four locations, also including Hindman and Eolia, Ky., and Elkhorn, W. Va.
Each site is directed year-round by MCC workers who live in the community and meet with potential homeowners to assess requests for repairs. The goal of each project is for each home to be “warm, safe and dry,” a refrain repeated by Harlan SWAP directors Carrie Anne Billett, York, Pa., and Heather Lee Gross, Harlan.
Volunteer Sarah Krause, who came to Harlan with her youth group from Forest Hills Mennonite Church, Leola, Pa., said she wasn’t so sure about her homeowner, Mike Mullins, at first. He was smoking on the porch, “drowsy looking” and didn’t seem very receptive, she said.
But as she and Mullins built pantry shelves together during the week, she learned to know the person behind the narcolepsy and debilitating gout. He would show her how to do tasks and then tell her to take over when his pain got in the way.
“He’s a really good teacher,” she said. “It was so much fun. He was telling me about his past and all the odd jobs he’s been doing. He was talking more and more and joking a lot ’til the end of the week.”
It was relationships with Harlan youth that helped draw Berlin (Ohio) Mennonite Church youth group leaders Joy and Tim Zuercher back to SWAP last summer. Ever since they brought a different youth group from Illinois to Harlan four years ago, they maintained Facebook friendships with several local youth from Harlan Christian Church, including Anne Corey Johnson.
Joy Zuercher remembers how the Harlan teens challenged stereotypes the volunteers had of people living in Appalachia. “They (Harlan teens) were educated, liked to have fun and liked to play football. They whined about the fact that there’s nothing to do on Friday night, just like us in our rural area. It helped our kids to realize by hanging out with them, that we’re all very, very similar.”
The house that the Zuerchers and Harlan youth were working on four years ago belonged to James and Tammy Roland. At the time, James Roland had severe back pain and other health issues. Zuercher said she feared that he would no longer be walking or perhaps no longer living.
She was dumbfounded when she walked into the SWAP dining hall and saw Roland walking with a cane, laughing and talking with the staff and new volunteers. The couple had become SWAP volunteers, helping feed and give construction advice to visiting groups.
During the three summers it took multiple groups to build their house, the Rolands learned to know a lot of people. They keep in touch with Christmas letters and phone calls and by hosting people who come back. “You make friendships,” James Roland said. He’s not an extrovert, he said, but his favorite part of SWAP is the people he meets.
At the local lumberyard where SWAP buys most of its supplies, part-owner Aimee Blanton said she is grateful for SWAP, not just for their business, but for the way they relate to the community.
“It’s like this is their home,” Blanton said. “They have a vested interest in helping the families because this is their home. They’ve built relationships with the community that help in general. SWAP, they come in and they’re just us.”
Applications are now being accepted for groups who want to volunteer for the summer of 2015. Information is available at swap.mcc.org.
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S.