HINDMAN, Ky. — The roof of the house trailer where Barney Combs lived was leaking and the front door and flooring around it were rotted. Steps to get in the house were gone, as was the skirting.
Combs, 63, had bought the older trailer after the farmhouse that his family lived in for generations started falling down. He depleted his savings by purchasing and moving the trailer to his Hindman, Ky., home land. His health prevented him from making repairs.
Coordinators for Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP), a home repair program that works with economically disadvantaged homeowners in Appalachia, visited Combs last summer to assess the needed trailer repairs and to determine if SWAP could help.
It didn’t look very hopeful.
But SWAP, a program of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Great Lakes, has a 30-year history of serving homeowners in Kentucky and West Virginia, while providing opportunities for people, especially youth, to enter into service with MCC.
Each year, the program is powered by 800 to 900 volunteers of varying ages and degrees of experience who spend a week to make houses safe, warm and dry. In 2014, they came from 16 states and Ontario to work and reflect on what service means.
“I cannot ‘fix’ anyone, only participate where God is already working,” said Mary Jayne Apple, who volunteered with a group from New Hope Freewill Baptist Church in Warsaw, Ind.
Is the trailer fixable?
Even with people resources at their disposal, the Hindman location coordinators, Joan and Phil Steininger, from Larkspur, Colo., weren’t optimistic that SWAP could fix Combs’ trailer, especially when they realized the plumbing had frozen and broken and the electrical wiring was cut off.
“The cost alone would have been far beyond our means,” said Joan Steininger. “Although we didn’t say no for sure, he could tell by our faces that it was unlikely we could help him.”
SWAP is funded largely by the volunteer groups who pay to work on up to 60 houses each year. Homeowners contribute what they can, sometimes financially, but often by providing meals or other resources. MCC supports the staff who coordinate each location. And in a few cases, volunteers give generous gifts to the program.
Ten days after the Steiningers had visited Combs, SWAP received an unexpected and generous gift from Salem Mennonite Church in Lima, Ohio. The Steiningers realized the gift, which was pulled together by a SWAP Hindman volunteer, could be used in combination with a scheduled group of skilled volunteers from Aluminum Trailer Company in Nappanee, Ind., to help Combs. They told him the good news.
“Words cannot describe the look on his face or the choked sound of his voice as he told us we had been his last hope, and he never thought we would come back,” Joan Steininger said.
“Two weeks later, his floors and door were repaired, the trailer had a roof cap and a porch with steps. The wiring and plumbing were replaced and underpinning enclosed the trailer.”
The work of SWAP happens today because a little more than 50 years ago, in 1964, MCC responded to the attention that presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy had brought to the poverty of coal miners and their families.
MCC began its work by sending medical personnel to help prevent the closure of several hospitals established and formerly run by the United Mine Workers of America. MCC’s program then was called the Appalachia Program.
Throughout the next 20 years, MCC, at times working together with the Mennonite Board of Missions (now Mennonite Mission Network), sent volunteers to work with mining communities to support or provide education, food relief, agriculture, home repair, community development and local craft programs.
In 1978, MCC started a home repair project in Whitesburg, Ky. By 1985 it had gradually developed into the SWAP program. Thirty years later, SWAP continues to operate from Harlan and Hindman, Ky., and Elkhorn, W. Va.
The needs remain today because central Appalachia is almost totally dependent on the declining coal industry, Steininger said. The economic situation in these areas continues to force increasing numbers of families to live below the poverty level, and the needs for assistance mount every day.
What SWAP does is bring hope, Joan Steininger said. Combs now has hope that he can live out his life on his family property.
“I sure appreciate what you all have done,” Combs said.
Learn more about SWAP and opportunities for service at swap.mcc.org. You may contact the SWAP office by phone, 606-633-5065, or email, AppalachiaPC@mcc.org.
In addition to the Steiningers, SWAP staff consists of program coordinators Charlene and Keith Barr, of Pettisville, Ohio; Harlan location coordinators Nicole and Steven Erickson with children Eislen and Ref, of Lancaster, Pa.; Elkhorn location coordinators Carl and Dove Leinbach, of Goshen, Ind.; office administrator Colettia Estep, Cornettsville, Ky.; and bookkeeper Jackie Joseph, Whitesburg, Ky.