September 5, 2013
Ashley Glenn knew it would take a tremendous amount of energy to be a leader going into an 11-week summer position as a staffer for the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) in an economically challenged part of Fayette County, W.Va.
A New Hudson, Mich., native who has begun her junior year at Albion College, Glenn last spring powered a Britons’ women’s lacrosse program with just 13 players to its finest season ever and a berth in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tournament by producing a school-record 68 goals and providing leadership as one of the captains.
Any challenges on the turf, however, were no match to the energy needed to overcome the emotions she felt in witnessing the deplorable living conditions families face in one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country.
Devoted to bringing hope and service through volunteer home repair, ASP worked to improve the condition of 500 homes, and as a staffer Glenn was placed in charge of managing projects and volunteers who would come for a week at a time to complete various construction projects.
“The problem is that I can't explain the magnitude of the poverty,” Glenn said. “By the end of the workday I was so emotionally drained from seeing all the problems that we needed to solve, that these families and children have been living [with] their whole lives.” She often wondered if some of the homes they worked on were actually beyond repair, but she adds, “I was kindly reminded ... that each of the homes that I was ready to get rid of was, in fact, someone's home, and not something disposable.”
Though it was impossible to achieve ASP’s ultimate goal of eradicating substandard housing in the region, Glenn could find renewed energy by seeing the difference in the families the staff was able to assist.
Glenn remembers a week when, confronted by a series of particularly difficult projects, she was buoyed by the actions of the volunteers she led. One home received a complete kitchen renovation as volunteers purchased new cabinets, a stove, a refrigerator, and a sink, while volunteers at another home discovered a solution to a flooring problem and purchased a new kitchen and a sofa for the family.
“I almost started crying because I was just so amazed that someone could be so moved in just a few days as to buy all these brand new things,” Glenn said. “So on top of the awesome week we had with these incredibly motivated and generous volunteers, one homeowner comes in Friday night during our Share Circle just to thank us for everything we've done for him, his family, and the community. He had been gone, so he didn't get much of a chance to meet the crew, but took time out anyway to personally thank all of us.”
The next week produced another memorable story when crew members moved out a refrigerator during a kitchen renovation.
“There was a family with a 1-year-old who stole my heart living in a house with cockroaches all over the home, and the flooring was essentially falling apart,” Glenn recalled. “I’m with the group leader of the volunteers, and we were trying to get the old refrigerator out of the home, and the woman told me not to open it. We had to pull the doors off, and there were bugs everywhere. It was the worst smell I could ever imagine, and I could hardly keep my composure.
“I thought about all the implications of the refrigerator—the family had been eating food out of a utility covered in bugs—and I realized I have so much compared to them,” she added. “I was making a difference in the lives of the families we served and the volunteers.”
“I had volunteered to do construction work for a week at a time three summers ago with a group from my church, but this was my first time as a staffer,” Glenn said. “It was a huge thing to live and work with 60-80 new people every week. We had to work through issues. I learned patience and flexibility—a lot of skills you don’t list on a résumé.
“I learned how to be specific and to choose my words carefully,” she added. “I learned there are ways to say things to get the point across without offending people.”
The hardest part, Glenn added, was saying goodbye to the families she had met. “I fell in love with Appalachia, and I will be back,” she said.