A Short Term Youth Mission Trip to Appalachia: High Impact, Low Cost

By Mark Klinski

Seeking respite from the hot noonday Appalachian sun, a group of teens and adult leaders lunch on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while chugging down water in the shade. In June 2007, this group of unskilled volunteers set out from St. Joseph’s Church in Wheaton, IL, heading south to the mountains of eastern Kentucky to assist with house repair work and serving Christ by serving “the least of the brethren.” Working with the Appalachia Service Project organization (ASP), the St. Joe’s group spent a week working on a re-roofing project at one house and on a bathroom re-flooring project at another home. ASP provides essential housing services to low-income families living in Appalachia as well as providing life-changing opportunities for volunteers both of which were accomplished in this exhausting and exciting week.

Working with ASP

Under the direction of our pastors—Fr. John Matusiak, Fr. Joseph Kopka, and Fr. Mykola Bodnarchuk—we looked at options for a low-cost, short-term missions trip for our youth somewhere in the United States, especially considering the hurricane-torn Gulf coast and Appalachia. To find potential projects, we contacted a wide range of organizations, including Orthodox parishes as well as larger charitable organizations, Orthodox Christian and non-Orthodox Christian alike. Due to several factors, especially our timeframe and overall costs, we decided to work with ASP.

ASP has been in existence since 1969, has worked with over 240,000 volunteers, and has repaired more then 12,500 homes. This track record was a huge factor in deciding to work with ASP. They were able to walk us through so many of the logistical aspects of the trip that we would have needed to figure out ourselves (perhaps the “hard way”!). They organized everything from the housing (an elementary school where classrooms were turned into our barracks for the week) to the house repair projects we’d be working on (they provided the actual materials we’d need for the projects) to organizing several evening cultural activities for the volunteer groups. They even knew of a van rental company near our parish that offered discounts to groups that worked with ASP! The materials they sent us in preparation for our trip were packed with all the information we’d need to have a successful week.

While institutionally affiliated with the United Methodist Church, ASP often works with groups from other faith traditions. In fact, interacting with youth from other traditions gave us an opportunity to share our Orthodox Christian faith with others, many of whom had never heard of Orthodox Christianity. One way we did this was in a variety of discussion sessions with the other groups. During one session, Deacon John Coleman, who accompanied our group and is an accomplished Church musician, introduced participants to a number of Orthodox Christian hymns. We also read to the group a portion of one of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on serving the poor. For many people in the other groups, this was their first experience with the Orthodox Christian tradition and the Church Fathers, and they approached us throughout the following days with many questions! This was a great opportunity to “plant the seeds of faith” and to witness to its fullness.

Our youth also were able to ask questions about poverty and the Gospel mandate to serve the poor by interacting with the families that we served. The ASP experience is structured so that groups don’t just work on houses, but interact with those who live in them. We packed a few extra peanut butter and jelly sandwiches each day so that we could eat lunch with the families that we were assisting, trying to get to know them as persons made in God’s image (more than mere “charity recipients”), listening to their stories, sharing ours with them, and frequently fulfilling requests for piggyback rides from their kids.

Costs and Fundraising

Unlike many mission trips, this one was extremely reasonable with regard to costs. Because ASP organized so many details of the project, our main costs were the application and project materials fees and transportation. As stated above, we rented 15-passenger vehicles from a local company with low rates, so van costs were far more reasonable than if we had rented through a large chain. (The company even delivered the vehicles to us at the parish and picked them up from there after we got back from Kentucky!)

Adult (including two college students) and youth participants were all asked to raise $450 to cover their expenses. Trip participants sponsored a free-will offering spaghetti luncheon after both Liturgies one Sunday. One participant also raffled off baseball tickets. All proceeds went to offset the cost of the trip. Fr. John Matusiak also gave each participant a sponsor letter to send out to family, friends, businesses, etc., stating that the student or adult had been selected to represent the parish on the mission trip and asking for donations. Because of this, parishioners weren’t the only ones expected to assist in fundraising for the trip.

At a total cost of $450 per participant—which covered travel, lodging, meals, building materials, etc—the mission trip was quite reasonable, and the participants had little difficulty in finding sponsors, both within and outside of our parish.

Looking Back

Our week-long mission trip in Appalachia was an incredible experience. Our youth came back knowing each other much better and much more cohesively unified. That energy continued through Church School and youth activities throughout the fall and the rest of the school year. That was one of the great gifts of the trip that surprised our adult sponsors!

If we had it to do again for the first time, we would have started the planning process earlier. ASP encourages groups to begin as early as the fall to prepare for the trip. That allows parishes to start fundraising and other logistical and legal-related tasks well in advance, but also allows parishes to incorporate the mission trip into Church School curricula (eg. discussing God’s love for the poor and downtrodden, our responsible as Christians to serve others, etc.) and even have preparatory training sessions (eg. learning how to safely use the tools that students will be using when in Appalachia). Furthermore, this gives an opportunity to youth and others who aren’t able to go on the trip itself to take ownership and become members of the mission trip team. To facilitate all this, ASP provides groups with numerous activity and lesson ideas that can easily be adapted for use in an Orthodox Christian setting.

More Information

If you’re interested in ASP, you’ll find a wealth of information on its website, www.asphome.org/. ASP can also be contacted at (423) 854-8800. And, since the members of St. Joe’s are contemplating a second mission trip in 2009, youth from other parishes in the Midwest are invited to join us.

Mark Klinski is a member of St. Joseph Orthodox Christian Church, Wheaton, IL, and a student at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Crestwood, NY.