During their service trip in the Appalachia region of Kentucky, 43 youths from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Libertyville will certainly encounter poverty.
An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the population in Inez, KY — which is where the students are staying this week — live below the poverty line, said Nancy Devroy, who is leading the group. Devroy said the students from Carmel, Libertyville and Vernon Hills High Schools will encounter people who have been laid off from the nearby coal mines. Some of the families the students will meet don't have indoor plumbing or electricity, Devroy said.
But amidst the great sadness, "there's lots of joy," said Devroy. "It's a tremendous place to be. The people are awesome. They open up their doors and their lives."
The youths, along with 18 adult chaperones, are spending the week fixing homes — largely trailers — and "helping give the people more dignity in their lives."
The annual trip is done through the Appalachia Service Project, or ASP, a Christian-based organization that started in the 1960s.
Devroy said the number of students who have signed up for the trip has increased steadily over the past three years. The first year saw just five students participate, followed by 20 in 2011.
"I know that the Holy Spirit is just running rampant all over this trip," Devroy said, referring to the growth in numbers of participants.
It's definitely not easy work that the students will be performing. In the past, they've dug ditches for drainage, installed drywall, built porches and stairs, installed flooring, and performed some plumbing work.
"It's rewarding, hard work," said Devroy. "Sometimes it feels like a band-aid, what we're doing."
But the students, who range from ages 14-18, "come back and they're changed," Devroy said. "We focus on the social justice part of it and look at the deeper reasons why people are so poor in Appalachia."
The students are staying at a school. They'll have group prayer time and discussions about what they've seen and heard.
"We say you're going to hear some horrible stuff. Do not judge the person or the family," said Devroy.
Returning home, Devroy said, can be tough for the students after they've spent so much time with the families.
"It's all about people's stories. It's about listening and hearing," she said.
"Re-entry can be tough when they see all the creature comforts they have. If God's given us much, much is expected of us," said Devroy. "But you come away with the idea that you don't need a lot of stuff to make a happy life."
Editor's Note: The attached pictures are from the July 2011 trip to Appalachia.