Why I stayed up all night with 80 high schoolers in rocking chairs

Company Culture Posted Feb 25, 2016 by Carro Halpin

Since graduating from college, the thought of pulling another all-nighter makes me exhausted. Yet over President’s Day weekend, I voluntarily did just that in the basement hall of the church I grew up in, to support youth raising money for an upcoming service trip.

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The room full of rockers during “unplugged” time

In July I’ll drive to rural Appalachia (pronounced Apple-at-cha) with 120 high schoolers and 48 adults to repair homes for families living in poverty in conjunction with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP). The non-profit organization brings thousands of volunteers from around the country to rural Central Appalachia to repair homes for low-income families. According to ASP’s web site, 17,030 volunteers repaired 642 homes last year.

ASP operates summer centers throughout Central Appalachia each summer. Each center is run by four college students who choose the home repair projects in the community, maintain the summer center (usually a school, where volunteers sleep on their own air mattresses), plan evening activities and daily meals, and most importantly manage the construction projects, materials and budgets as new groups of volunteers arrive each week – for seven weeks in a row. It’s an enormous amount of responsibility – I know, I did it.

My ASP Staff vehicle, Bobcat

My ASP Staff vehicle, Bobcat

During the summer of 2011, I worked on ASP Staff in Wise County, Virginia, a small mining town of 2,000 people near the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, living in the band room of Appalachia High School. Substandard housing, unemployment and poverty were rampant. Many homes were trailers that lacked proper emergency exits or enough bedrooms. Disabled family members struggled without wheel chair ramps. Leaking tin roofs, rotted floors and foundations needed replacing. We constructed retaining walls to protect homes from crumbling mountain sides. Some homes were in such bad shape, we had to turn the projects down. The volunteer repair work we did gave families financial breathing room to concentrate on more important things like feeding their kids and looking for work. We repaired the homes of 15 families – making them warmer, safer and drier—but more importantly giving those families hope. It’s powerful having strangers drive thousands of miles to repair your home and want to get to know you. The families taught us even more.

2011 ASP Wise Country Staff at Appalachia High School

2011 ASP Wise County Staff at Appalachia High School

We were literally the answer to one woman’s prayers. Retired and widowed, this woman was on her own to deal with a kitchen collapsing underneath her. The entire kitchen was severely slanted; it was obvious as soon as you walked into the room. She had no money to fix this urgent problem and prayed every day for almost a year for help. One afternoon, we arrived at her house after reviewing the application she submitted for ASP’s help. She was in tears when we signed the contract for volunteer repair work. I loved seeing her face light up each day as I pulled into her driveway – she was full of infectious joy and grateful for everything she had, even if it was less than I was used to. I cherish the chunk of coal from her basement that she glazed and crafted into a memento – a thank you for our service and a token of our friendship. Her unwavering faith and positive attitude moved me.

That summer was the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life. Because of my unique program at Northeastern University, I only had one summer off in college and I knew I had to spend it in Appalachia. It was the four years of volunteering with ASP through my church in high school that inspired me to do something so out of my comfort zone. Every year I returned from my week in Appalachia with a new, better perspective—aware of how lucky I am, but also with a heavy heart knowing there’s people living in third world conditions right here in America that most people are unaware of. I’ve missed mountains and people of Appalachia and ASP terribly, which is why I’m thrilled to return this summer, volunteering as a Group Leader for the first time.

IMG_0940Each youth must raise funds to pay for building materials and supplies, rental vans, and costs associated with our meals and lodging in local school buildings for the week. This year the Westboro ASP group must raise nearly $120,000!

This sounds daunting, but the Westborough ASP team is a well-oiled machine. The annual Rock-a-Thon is by far the group’s largest fundraiser, bringing in 1/3 of the budget.  Youth rock in rocking chairs for 24 hours straight and solicit sponsors to donate money for every hour rocked. Only during the last five minutes of each hour can the youth get up from their chairs.  As a (younger) Group Leader, I volunteered to help with the overnight shift – 9:30 PM to 7:30 AM. Responsibilities included scooping 80 bowls of ice cream, making sure everyone stayed in their seats, and a new movie started after one ended. It’s a fun bonding experience for a great cause – everyone gets to know one another and also learn about Appalachia throughout the 24 hours.

Preparations for our trip continue through the spring – more fundraisers and hands on construction training. Your generosity can directly help pay for much-needed supplies such as:

  • $500 replaces a tin roof
  • $250 replaces a hot water heater
  • $50 buys one sheet of OSB siding
  • $25 buys a roll of insulation
  • $10 buys one gallon of roofing tar

If you’d like to make a donation, visit: http://www.westboroughasp.org/donate.html. Stay tuned for more updates from my trip!

By Carro Halpin