Students help rebuild a West Virginia mountain town
Christmas came early for me this year, in a tiny town of 1,500, nestled in the mountains of West Virginia. Thanks to Bay High teacher and Student Council advisor Rob Grossman, 15 Bay High Student Council members, grades 9-12, and four adult chaperones traveled to the city of Rainelle the first weekend in December to help repair homes ravaged by a devastating flood that made national headlines last June.
Rob arranged our trip through the Appalachia Service Project (ASP), a nonprofit organization with a mission to utilize volunteer power to make homes warmer, safer and drier for families in need in Central Appalachia. Specifically, we were helping with “Rebuild Rainelle,” an ASP initiative to build 50 new homes in a two-year period and also repair existing ones impacted by the flood.
This was not my first trip to Appalachia with local students. But this situation compared to no other. Make no mistake; each experience has exposed our volunteer groups to poverty and families living in substandard conditions. Every journey has resulted in the satisfaction of helping others by fixing homes and making memories with appreciative homeowners.
However, Rainelle stands out because we were volunteering in an area where an entire community was shattered within a few hours. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed. People lost their homes, their cars and all of their belongings. Some lost friends and family members. Twenty-three people died in the flood – 15 of them were from Greenbrier County. Everyone in the town was touched by this disaster.
During our stay, a local speaker described his feelings of helplessness as he stood by the river and heard cries for help in the darkness of the night. He told us about a neighbor who used a two-man kayak to rescue 18 people, but was unable to help others who perished.
The night we arrived, ASP Rainelle Center Director, Chris Schroeder, welcomed us and briefed us on our projects. He also suggested we use the term flood “survivor” instead of “victim” as we spoke and interacted with people in the community.
We had two workdays. Half of our team insulated a home in town, the other insulated a trailer in the countryside. On day two, part of the team painted the interior of an older home in the city.
Even though six months had passed since the flood, we saw boarded-up neighborhoods, piles of debris and constant reminders of its destruction. However, wherever we went, we also detected signs of the “survivor spirit” and hope to which Chris had alluded. We saw the eight new homes that ASP plans to finish so families can move in by Christmas. (The first five were dedicated before Thanksgiving.) Other houses were under repair, and businesses were up and running.
At one of the work sites, it was especially moving when locals stopped by, concerned about our comfort and to share their stories. An older woman brought us freshly baked biscuits and a tub of “Blue Bonnet” spread to thank the team for volunteering. Another neighbor left a case of water bottles and a box of new mittens and warm hats in his truck for us to take if we got cold.
What the adult leaders also experienced was the extraordinary spirit of the student volunteers. It shone through as they worked in 35-degree temperatures cutting insulation and crawling under homes to install it. It was evident as they powered through one job the first day so they were able to take on a second job on day two. Some of the students made their homeowner smile when they sang Christmas carols. At one point, the Bay team joined forces with AmeriCorps volunteers to lift heavy loads of sheetrock from a truck bed into the new homes under construction.
The night before we departed, I returned to the job site with some of the students to retrieve a tool that was left at the trailer the day before. On the way back to the center, we observed a large gathering of emergency vehicles with lights flashing in the Kroger parking lot. All things considered, we assumed it was some type of emergency drill. We later discovered that it was actually the starting point for Rainelle’s Christmas parade. Once again, we were touched by Rainelle’s “survivor spirit.”