Constructive lessons

Inner-city teens who are used to receiving social services travel to Appalachia to serve others

Seven youngsters sat perched high above the ground, replacing the steeply pitched roof on the house into which Bonnie Miracle - daughter, sister, widow, and mother of coal miners - first moved about a half-century ago.

The view from up here - of tiny, huddled houses and trailers, the gray colliery across the railroad tracks, and the surrounding green Appalachian hills - was as foreign to these teenagers from inner-city Boston as a view of the surface of Mars.

But that unfamiliar scene was one of the reasons the Rev. Katherine "Kate" Haynes, associate pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, in one of Boston's meanest neighborhoods, had brought them here. She wanted them to see a place that was very different from their home - but where the challenges of life were essentially the same. She wanted them to know how it feels to help someone else, and thus feel your own burden lighten. And perhaps most important, she wanted them to know the rewards of serving others and the power of their choices.

The boys and girls on Mrs. Miracle's roof - and another four who were beginning work on a 12-by-17-foot deck on another house just outside the city limits of Harlan - had come here with Ms. Haynes to spend a week doing volunteer work for C.O.A.P, Christian Outreach with Appalachian People.

This was the first inner-city group, the first largely nonwhite group, to come here since C.O.A.P was founded 20 years ago to provide safe, dry, affordable housing for area residents.

Instilling the idea of service

It was no small irony that, by middle-class standards, all but one of the youngsters in the Boston group are poor and come from circumstances that are in many ways more difficult than those of the people they have come to help. Two are homeless, most live in public housing, most come from single-parent homes; none is a stranger to the vicissitudes and dangers of inner-city American life.

And that is a large part of why Ms. Haynes and four other adults brought the teenagers 800 miles to this depressed corner of southeastern Kentucky's coal country, where about one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.

"What I really want them to understand is that service is at the heart of being a Christian," says Haynes. "It doesn't matter who you are, or where you live, or what other people think about your life. If you're a Christian, service has to be central to your life."

Haynes stresses that she brought members of her youth group here not only to get them involved in helping others, but also to get them to understand that poverty is not a problem of a single race or geographic location.

From the beginning, that lesson was not lost on the youngsters. As 16-year-old Eddy Barrows would say at week's end, "People down here probably think that up North things are a whole lot better - when they're not. But the poverty down here is a lot more tangible. This has been a really humbling experience."

Before Eddy and his fellow Bostonians reached such conclusions, they would spend the week learning the basics of carpentry and ditch-digging, how to drive a nail straight and true without flattening fingers, how to measure boards so that they fit where they were supposed to after being cut, and how to lay shingles so that they would keep rain out of a house.

These were skills that back in Boston the teens would never have imagined knowing - or using.

Reality sets in

Before the week ended, however, the youngsters and their adult companions would also learn that leaving the city behind doesn't always mean leaving behind the kind of problems associated with the city - and that doing good and being good are not necessarily the same thing.

But it was the roofing skills - ripping off old roofing, laying on new, and nailing it down - that the youngsters were learning from C.O.A.P. staff carpenters Jim Ellenberg and Jack Farley that were particularly important to Mrs. Miracle. "I really needed a roof five years ago," she says, "but I couldn't afford it."

Mr. Ellenberg was impressed by how hard the youngsters were working. "You see all kinds of stuff on CNN about trouble in Chicago and Boston and places, so it's good to know that there are still good people in the world," the carpenter says. "It's just great that these kids do this."

If the youngsters had any illusions about their week of service being a lark in the country, those ideas were dispelled shortly after their arrival, when Tina Cootz, the volunteer program coordinator, informed the youngsters what would be expected of them.

"The work day begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 3:30," she says, "with an hour for lunch, [and] a half day on Wednesday."

Over the course of the week, the Massachusetts group would work on three projects: the replacement of Miracle's roof; building a deck across the back of a double-wide mobile home, giving the owner a way to her backyard without going around the house; and constructing a deck and wheelchair-access ramp and digging a drainage ditch at the three-bedroom, one-bath house C.O.A.P built nine years ago outside Harlan for Sandy Howard, her two children, and her disabled husband.

Mrs. Howard watched as some youngsters took turns nailing the flooring on the access ramp and others stood in mud over their shoe tops, trying to divert a natural spring that had turned the back of the small plateau on which her house sits into a swamp.

She considered the question of why a group of teenagers would travel hundreds of miles to help her. "I guess they're inspired to do something," she says, "or they want to see [a different part of the country]. We tried something like this with our church, and none of the kids wanted to do it. But this group's been wonderful."

Each night the kids - most of whom are 16 - took turns cooking dinner, and then they had a few hours to explore the area. At 9:30 they would gather at the Mennonite Center for a group meeting and discussion before bedding down in sleeping bags on foam mattresses.

Different place, same problems

But what wasn't known for a couple of days was that on Sunday evening, just hours after their arrival, four of the youngsters had managed to find people in Harlan from whom to buy marijuana, and had been robbed of a substantial amount of money. One girl and two boys had smoked marijuana as they drove around town with their new acquaintances.

The following evening, when two of the four were 45 minutes late for curfew because they were out attempting to recover their money, the adults finally learned what had been going on.

What to do? Not only was smoking marijuana illegal, it was against C.O.A.P. rules for participants. After much discussion, it was determined that Haynes and another adult drive three of the four teens who had gotten in trouble back to Boston.

It was an agonizing decision for the minister. "I couldn't have guaranteed that there wouldn't be another incident," she explained afterward. "I couldn't keep them safe. It breaks my heart, and it breaks my heart that that's what Harlan saw of them."

The fourth teenager involved in the incident was allowed to stay with the rest of the group. Everyone agreed that he just went along for the ride and didn't participate in the illegal activities. Also, he"never ducked the truth," Haynes says. Instead, he immediately admitted what he had done, and acknowledged that it was wrong.

That was in contrast to the three teens sent home, who were angry and defiant.

In an interview later, Frank Stoffel, C.O.A.P.'s director, said that while this was the first time in five years that he has been aware of a drug incident involving volunteers, it's irrelevant that this group is from the inner city. "Last time the kid was white and came from a rich suburb of Cleveland," he says.

Erian Lennix, the student who was involved in the incident but not sent home, says he learned a big lesson. "It was a good experience, because I wouldn't do it next time. I've learned not to follow the wrong crowd. I haven't been in trouble since the sixth grade when I got suspended," he says, "and that was for a fight when somebody hit me first."

Life's 'too slow' in Harlan County

Erian says he came on the trip "because I like helping people out who need help.... But there's nothing here but mountains. I couldn't live here. I like the work; I could be a carpenter. But not in Kentucky."

Like many of the youngsters, Rahshea Morgan, a junior at South Boston High, acknowledges that she wanted to come to Harlan "to travel, and because Kate asked me to." She was surprised by the intensity of the work.

"For some reason I didn't think we were going to be getting all dirty and muddy doing what the [staff] carpenters do. I thought they'd give us the more easy stuff," she says. "It's OK, though; we're doing something good - even though I don't like to get muddy....

"This wouldn't be a place I'd want to live," Rahshea adds. "It's so quiet. There are a lot of poor people in Boston, too, but there are also a lot of middle-class and upper-class people...." One difference she sees between being poor in Boston, and being poor in Harlan - where there are few job opportunities - is that "in Boston you can push out there and turn your life around. Here you can't."

Not only did the teenagers gain insights into what it's like to live in a different part of the country, they also discovered that being of service made them feel good, says Eddy. "As we got to do more and more work, as we got to knoweach other better, this got more satisfying. I had a lot of fun down here. I came on the trip because I'd never come this far from Boston before, and I wanted to do some community service."

About the drug incident, the teenager observes: "There are drug problems everywhere. At home in the projects there are drugs in every building. My friends tell me about drug parties in the suburbs. And there are drugs here."

Thinking about the entire experience, Haynes says, "These kids really don't take things for granted.... Did you know that when they went on their hike to the waterfall [on the final day], "Devin's shoes fell apart, and Rodreakius took off his shoes and gave them to Devin and he walked back down the mountain barefoot?"

She smiles as she thinks of how hard some of the Boston teens have worked this week, and what maturity they have shown. This kind of growth, she says, was the aim of the trip.

But, when she is asked about the three who were sent home, she must demonstrate her teachings about service and making difficult choices.

Would the ringleader be welcomed back to the church's youth group? "Absolutely," she says. "It's easy to talk about forgiveness when it's not an issue. But would I take him on another trip? I don't know. I couldn't live with myself if something happened to him when he was in my care."

Despite that incident, "the whole group feels great about what we've done," says Rodreakius Edwards, "starting something from scratch - being able to stand on it when you're done. It makes you feel great, and it's doing something for these people."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Constructive lessons
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today