After a few hours of driving through windy and mountainous roads, a carful of supplies and Oakland Catholic students (including myself) crossed a bridge into what is the small town of Webster Springs, W.V.. Our car packed to the brim with supplies like shovels and buckets for flood cleanup, and sleeping bags and air mattresses, we had finally arrived to the town we had been waiting to visit for months. Coordinated by the efforts of both Oakland and Central Catholic, we were among approximately 100 people participating in the summer mission trip to what we call "Appalachia", assisting both the immediate and surrounding communities of Webster Springs. While the trip was both highly anticipated and an exciting opportunity for all to serve, no one could have planned for the prior week's devastating flooding that destroyed homes, and left many with nothing. So while we had initially expected worksites and projects unwashed away by floods, our groups adjusted and put our best (waterproof) feet forward.
With ten work groups, ranging from three people in a group to ten people in others, Oakland and Central sent many able hands to many different work sites and communities in need. Many assisted with flood cleanup, demolishing destroyed homes and buildings and shoveling muck that sat in some places inches deep. Overall Oakland and Central's teams spent four days working in Webster Springs. With great group leaders consisting of parents, school faculty, administrators, and clergy, all of the kids were taken great care of, and well rested and fed for the days' hard work. I was in a group with 9 other students, and had two great leaders from Central Catholic.
Over the span of four days, my group visited three different sites. During the first two days, we worked at a man named Bub's home, cleaning out his basement, which had heavily flooded. By the time we got there on Monday, the water was only about six inches deep but it took more than a full day's of work and the power of a few shop-vacs to drain the water. While the water was being pumped out of the basement, we carried all of his belongings that had been drenched and submerged by the waters. Mostly everything was soaked, including giant bins filled with ceramic animals. Toward the end of our two days there, his backyard looked like a zoo for the small clay creatures. We also carried out tires and tons of mason jars, and a few boys in my group carried out large wooden tables. The worksite, especially on the first day, was filthy. It was nearly impossible to shovel or carry buckets of sludge and floodwater without it splashing up, or sloshing over the edge of buckets. Everyone was caked with mud by the end of the first day. After two days of making probably a few hundred trips up and down the narrow and low staircase that descended into Bub's basement, carrying buckets of water, sludge, and whatever had been in the basement, we had finally cleared it out the best we could. Then using power washers, more shovels, and more water pumps, we washed out the mud and leftover water. The boys helped Bub with the mounds of trash and unusable items, driving tractors to trash piles set up for flood cleanup while the girls washed and laid out anything salvageable in the hot West Virginian sun. At the end of our second workday, we decided that we had done all we could for Bub's family's basement.
What struck me the most about working for Bub was not the dirt, or the incredibly hard work that every person in my group put in, but Bub's incredible gratefulness and hospitality. Although we did most of the heavy lifting and cleanup, Bub spent both days with us. He assisted us with whatever we needed, helping us in the basement, and constantly asking us if we needed anything. At one point he put on the radio for us while we cleaned, and we got to know more about his musical tastes and his life as we chatted and sang while we worked. Bub's family was so kind that they even washed all of our clothes every day, even when we didn't work for them on the last two days. His wife would pick up our dirty clothes at the end of the day, and then would drop them off at the Churches we stayed at in the mornings. We never asked for anything of Bub and his family, but they did anything to make us comfortable and enjoy our work. And it was enjoyable. It made all the difference to work among such an amiable and easygoing man, and my work team really bonded at his house.
The kindness and big hearts that we encountered those first two days certainly didn't end there, though. On our third day we traveled to a different county with another group and together they worked at a Freemasonry club and other buildings in the area. My friend, Capri, and I worked a little differently that day. Instead of shoveling up floors and visiting landfills, Capri and I worked all day at what had become a relief center that the mayor and his wife had set up along with the help of their community and church. Capri and I spent the entirety of our day in a standing trailer that was floor-to-ceiling full of supplies from baby food, hygiene products, to toilet paper and paper towels. We made personal hygiene packages, filling bags with things like toothpaste, soap, and wipes. These packages were given to people if they needed them while they were obtaining more supplies, as mostly everyone had lost everything. That is not an exaggeration. The operation was huge. People drove in from the morning to the time we left, families with small children, the elderly, and the youth. People packed their cars, filling the trunk and their backseats with cleaning supplies, clothing, personal items, and food. The women who ran the operation worked harder than I have ever seen anyone work, and in the hot sun, too. While Capri and I organized the rooms and continued to fill buckets and packages with items families needed, we watched a tide of the seemingly hopeless interact with a few exhausted women who had to get everything in order. And while all of the craziness ensued, our supervisors found time to say hello, and thank us for our work, and insist that we have drinks and eat the lunches they had prepared for everyone. The food was delicious and again, I was amazed at the charity of those whose communities faced severe and long-lasting destruction at the hands of blameless nature. They did not complain, nor fight with one another. Instead, they joined together as a community and worked in unison and lifted one another's spirits, as they had to fill the wheelbarrows of people in shock, who weren't able to really articulate that they had nothing. Every day was a reminder to me that material possessions aren't the only things humans can possess, and the qualities of love and service I saw daily seemed to overwhelm the importance of any material item.
The most emotional part of that worksite occurred when the people of the community were informed that FEMA was coming in: the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This was huge, as a large percentage of homes had been destroyed and they needed much more help than what they could put forward by themselves. People were hugging and crying, and it felt like a small burden had lifted off of the shoulders of those who simply had no idea how they would clean any of it up.
My group spent our last workday at Webster Spring's community park, and a few of us cleaned out a storage unit that had filled with mud. Later we did a lot of cleaning and returned supplies back to the unit, as the annual wood chopping competition takes place at the park, and there were tons of signs and contraptions for the competition. We weren't the only ones working there, though. Families came and helped, too, and a few smaller boys drove our trash to the heaps and gave us rides in the John Deer tractors, which they effortlessly and quickly maneuvered under the age of 10. That day the mayor's wife directed us, and at the end of the day gave us free t-shirts and hats that advertised the wood chopping competition after a boy in my group inquired to see if we could purchase them. We were all so thankful for their hospitality, and almost couldn't believe she was giving away many shirts and hats for free in the face of a disaster that ruined so much and left so many with so little.
By the end of the week, everyone was both exhausted and sad to go. We were happy with the work we had done, but it felt saddening to know that after we left there would still be much more to do. The people of Webster Springs had been so thankful and in my experience, taught me the biggest lesson that I have ever learned on the importance of collaboration and selflessness. Coming from an extremely privileged background and lucky to have never had to face such destruction as these people did, I was humbled to see their smiles and the graces they possessed, all while some communities had been physically washed away. The people of Webster Springs reminded me that even in the face of adversity, when humans join together and share their gifts of empathy, kindness, charity, and ultimately love, so much can be done for the greater good. I have been on other mission trips before, but Appalachia taught me the most about humanity and the souls of others, all while doing strenuous physical work. It was an amazing experience by virtue of the work we did, the people we did it for, their responses, and the people I worked with. I have never been so grateful for such an opportunity, for my experience was one of many lessons and personal growth and a humbled state.
Unfortunately I'll be graduating this upcoming spring and won't be able to attend the next mission trip to Webster Springs. But it is one that I would encourage anyone who can, to participate in and I would strongly think that they would have just an amazing experience as I did. When you open yourself up to others through volunteer services, whether that may be the purely physical labors of shoveling muck and ripping up floors, or sorting through canned goods and handing someone diapers for their babies, I can positively and truly say you see the best of humanity and others.