It must be a sight to see the Immaculata van heading west on Route 30, packed with eager and loyal students singing John Denver’s “Almost Heaven, West Virginia” at the top of their lungs.
What started out as an alternative spring break option for students has become so much more. Working with the Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity group in Franklin, WV, Immaculata’s Assistant Director of Campus Ministry Jessica Morrell and IU student-volunteers have worked on numerous homes throughout the region for the past few years. Although the students assist in constructing or refurbishing homes, the most valuable experience is built with the local families that they meet while working.
“Doing physical work is one thing, but it really is all about the connections,” states Morrell.
Morrell describes the people who have touched the lives of the students—and vice versa:
Mr. Walter: former employee for Habitat and a vet with two tours of duty to the Middle East
BJ: the fiancé of a woman who was having a house built
Mr. Buzzard: owns a mobile home just to store his collection of baseball caps. The students built him a new roof.
Mr. Willie and his wife Helen: own a Habitat home built next to one that the IU crew worked on; Mr. Willie helped them build that home for another family.
Alan: owns a Pope bottle opener; students assisted him in building a foundation for a house.
Aaron Pugh: former volunteer for Habitat who owns a farm that the IU crew visits
Father Arthur Bufogle: pastor of St. Mark’s the Evangelist Church in Bartow, WV
IU seniors William Bruno, Michael Beall, and James Wier noted that meeting BJ left quite an impression. “We still quote ‘BJisms,’” said Bruno. The guys helped BJ build a railing for his deck while the other students worked on kitchen cabinets inside the house. Only when the guys thought they were done did BJ realize the railing was upside down.
After meeting Mr. Buzzard the first year and viewing his baseball cap collection, they learned that his wife had passed away. Morrell and some of the students went back the next year to spend time with him and to bring him an Immaculata baseball cap to add to his collection.
Then there is the Pugh Farm. The students definitely have fun visiting all the animals. Morrell remembers a visit when one of the cows had just given birth but the calf wasn’t nursing—IU students to the rescue! They herded the cow, tethered it up with the calf and saved a life.
“I’ve had the good fortune to have met, worked and played with the service groups from Immaculata a few times on their journeys to the Mountain State,” Pugh says. “Their enthusiasm and willingness to work, even on difficult tasks such as putting shingles on a roof in February, left an impression.”
Junior Sarah Pasternak explains that while working with IU’s Campus Ministry, the students emphasize that “we do not just help; rather, we serve!” She continues by explaining that the word “help” might imply that the people
the students meet are below them but that the term “serving” means that the students are working with these people while learning their culture and stories. This is obviously something that Morrell would like all students to understand and appreciate.
Aside from the hard work, Pugh enjoys showing the students some local attractions including a swimming hole. Pasternak, who grew up in Fairfield, NJ, states that the swimming hole is her favorite site in West Virginia. “West Virginia is hands-down the most beautiful place in the U.S.,” she states matter-of-factly. “I think it is impossible to look out from the top of Spruce Knob, which is the highest point in West Virginia, without knowing there is a Divine Being who created a land so naturally and perfectly grand.”
The swimming hole is a favorite of many of the others as well. Morrell states that one of her most memorable experiences is when the students “took the plunge,” jumping off the rocks into the cool water below. ”That was just so awesome! The students had never experienced anything like that before. Just to watch their faces. A lot of them were scared to jump off the rocks. But when they finally did it, they were so proud of themselves.”
One of the more humorous stories that Morrell tells is the “keys to the church story.” Wanting the students to attend Mass while on the service trip, Morrell contacted the priest of a tiny mission chapel, St. Mark the Evangelist, asking if they could meet the families and celebrate Mass with them, and offering to do any work needed around the chapel. Lo and behold, Morrell received a letter from the priest stating that they didn’t need any work done but that the students were welcome to visit and attend Mass. “And then he mails me my own key to the church!” Morrell adds, still astonished.
Morrell, who bravely and confidently organizes several service trips each year for the students, is the perfect role model for the student-volunteers. Her enthusiasm and love for humanity emanates from everything that she does. No one, including Morrell, regrets the time and energy that the service trips require—in fact, there is a waiting list for the next trip.
Pasternak summed it up when she stated, “My three trips [to West Virginia] have been some of the best weeks of my life.”