I guess this is the inauguratory entry. We have arrived safely through winding roads to Beard's Fork, West Virginia. The scenery is beautiful, the trees are lush and green, and this town is on the bank of a small river literally. Every house has a porch and somewhere to sit and relax, as well as a dog (or four). We've settled into our Global Volunteer house, the first floor with two rooms full of bunk beds, and the upstairs with a full kitchen, two bathrooms, and a large room to hang out. It's comfortable, because so many other people have spend time here, it's well lived in. Past volunteers have left salad dressing in the fridge, shampoo and soap in the bathrooms, books and games in the rec area. It's within walking distance of the build site, which will be where we will work on a new dorm for other global volunteers.
Yesterday was a long day of traveling. We all had to take two flights to get to Charleston, spending a lot of time waiting between flights at different airports. After we all met up we drove to the West Virginia Institute of Technology where we had some sort of orientation session with John David the Director, where we learned about the Southern Appalachian Labor School, which we are working with. Then we drove to Beard's Fork to unpack, then we headed to Wal-Mart to go food shopping. We spent over $700 on food and had to figure out where to stockpile it. As a vegetarian, I am happy about our lack of meat in order to conform to Kosher dietary restrictions. Everyone's getting along really well so far, we are joking about being on the reality show "The Real World" with this journal as a confessional.
We just ate our first lunch together and we're going to head back to the build site to continue working.
Today was our first day of working on the new dorm. We met Ron, Ralph, Terry, Buck, Brian, and a few others. We also were introduced to Vicky, who is the main contractor. She seemed eager to make a difference and build quality buildings with up-to-date green aspects but did not have the funding. Alicia, Lindsey and I helped Buck put up drywall in what will be a Unisex Handicapped Bathroom. We stayed with him all day. Later I helped him fix the ceiling in another bathroom even though all I did was hand him screws. Tomorrow I'll try to do more heavy work because I feel like I didn't do enough.
Buck said he's getting his GED tomorrow, he's 19. He says he lives in an old mining house with boards that used to be stuffed with newspapers for insulation, which he's been fixing for his parents. He has 6 siblings from his parents' two marriages. His girlfriend is 26 with two kids. Buck said that she keeps him around to pay the bills. He was a good teacher and didn't mind our slow pace and lack of strength. The three of us were very surprised that he shared so much information but he may be used to talking to volunteers, or maybe it's just his personality, or maybe the overall West Virginia culture.
I am a big fan of accents, and I really like southern accents. It's smooth and relaxing and it makes me wonder what we sound like to them.
Other people helped dig a ditch and did more drywall as well as spackle. Tomorrow there will be an inspector so they were a little time-pressed to finish certain jobs.
After work, some of us prepared dinner. The beans didn't exactly soak enough but we had potatoes and salad and apple crisp. Artie came by to do some team building. We wrote down our goals, and the 15 Characteristics of an Effective Team, which are teamwork, communication, trust, patience, positive outlook, sympathetic, personal responsibility, respect, goodwill, humor, good leadership, initiative, empathy, compromise, structure, and the bonus of understanding. We all had similar goals for the most part.
Then we "Jewish Learned." We read through some quotes from influential medieval rabbis, and discussed giving charity to others, concentric circles of influence, and to whom do we owe our resources, if any? We had a really interesting conversation which I cannot do justice to through memory on this computer journal.
The group as a whole is getting along really well and we're all eager to help and make an impact. Hopefully we'll get enough rest tonight for tomorrow's work day!
Day 3: We made eggs, well some did, for breakfast today and headed down to find the most packed truck I have ever come across in my life. We attempted to clean out and organize Ralph's truck full of 20 year old possessions. It is still a work in progress. Lindsie and I beat a rug with a broom very intensely. Everyone scattered in different directions. Sanding, cleanup, and drywall were the pre-lunch tasks in addition to what is going on under the house. I really hope the inspection passes because the inspectors won't come back for another three months. To shed some light on the mountain dew debacle it is sometimes used to calm down or to focus. I guess caffeine can have the reverse effect depending on the person. Some just grew up with it. The sanding really wore out my little arms, I must say. Every one seems a bit more tired today. That means we are working hard.
We woke up a little bit earlier today than yesterday because the men were getting to the worksite early this morning to finish the plumbing before the inspector arrived. When we got to the worksite the men were busy working on the plumbing so they could not help us work, so we were assigned to clean out Ralphs truck. His truck was very messy, I banged out a rug from the van with alysia and it seemed like the rug had not been cleaned in 10 years. The inspection almost did not pass because the drains were not pressurized but the inspector is coming back tomorrow to check again. I am having trouble finding other things to say because today seemed more ordinary than yesterday because I guess I am getting more used to being here and to the people I am working alongside with. Yesterday I worked with Buck but he was not at work today because he was getting his GED diploma. Since Buck was not there today I worked more with Hillel group members. I tried to screw in screws with Becca but the drill was very hard to use. I also sanded dry-wall with Gianna and Alysia. My favorite part of my day was getting to use a power saw to cut wood. The guys are all very helpful and Wesley watched me saw to make sure I was doing it right. I love working with and listening to the guys life stories. Daniel said that he might be going to jail soon for up to five years because of driving issues and it would be very sad if he would have to leave his son since he is his sons sole provider. Daniel also said that he was adopted by John David at the age of four or five and I was interested to see if he thought that being adopted by a professor benefited his life greatly but without asking him that direct of a question and from what I got out of him it didn't seem to matter that much. Typing on this mini keyboard is tiring so I maybe I will add more later.
I feel compelled to write a few words about Wesley because he is the person that I have gotten to know the best over these past couple days. He is 19 years old and he was living in Colorado before he had to move because he got involved with drugs. He started going to HS, but then he was eventually kicked out because he cursed out a teacher and essentially refused to apologize. He is now working on his GED, but he is having a lot of trouble passing the grammar part...he told me that he passed all the other parts with flying colors. I noticed that he had a couple tattoos so I asked him what they meant. He has a glow in the dark one that says " Menace to Society" as well at 2 theater masks which he says is a symbol of his belief that you need to smile and laugh through the pain and not allow others to see your distress. His mother had him when she was only 14 years old and his father has never been a part of his life. When he was only 13 years old, his mother kicked him out of the house and he had no place to go. He told me that he would sleep wherever he could, he didn't have a steady home. He flat out admits that he resents his mother. He is also allergic to bee stings, but he doesn't have an epi-pen because he lacks insurance and thinks that $120 is too much He loves mountain dew and Monster drink because they have a lot of caffeine, which he uses to control his ADHD and Bi-polar disorder. He now lives with his sister in the town next to Beards Fork. He is very open with his experiences and has a beautiful genuine smile that evokes a smile in those around him. Yesterday I sat down with him and tried to help him with the GED exam for awhile...he got 10/20 questions right and he seemed really discouraged by that. He clearly CARES about getting his GED and doesn't decline help when it is offered to him. I think he has a great soul and just has been through some really tough times. I look forward to getting to know him better and hopefully making a positive impact on his life in some form or another...and If I can't do that, I just want to make him smile for a brief moment and forget the numerous things that seem to be troubling him on a daily basis.
We are almost done with day 2. I found my true calling - ditch digging! I actually enjoyed that, more so than putting up drywalling. It is difficult work but I like being outside and physically working rather than using the powerdrill... or standing on a scaffold. After work today, we ate dinner then went back to the SALS building to hear some local music. They played all covers from all different genres in a bluesy country style.
Then we did more Jewish Learning and had another interesting discussion about our motives for coming on this trip as well as to whom do we owe our resources, through articles about Israel accepting refugees from Sudan. The genocide there is very real and an awful situation. I believe that we cannot stand by and watch injustice with the hopes that someone else will take care of the problem. However this does not mean that I am always working towards good all the time. I did have selfish motives coming on this trip. When I saw it advertised the first thing I thought was, "that will be really fun!" For me, volunteering is fun. I don't know if people ever do anything for completely unselfish motives. We can always get something out of every altruistic situation, even if it's just feeling good about ourselves.
Even with all our work we still had time for fun. We actually were able to check the internet for our grades which were posted today (we all did well!!!) and send out a few emails. Becca and I then cleaned up dinner and the kitchen is now sparkling. Rikki and Gianna then put water bottles in their hair in order to achieve a Suessian look.
Tomorrow night is Shabbat and we have invited a few people to join us for tacos! Delicious.
I think I can say that we all collectively were disappointed that the work crew didn't show up to our Mexican dinner tonight; we were all really looking forward to spending time with them and being able to just sit and talk rather than have a job to do on the site. I personally know that I was disappointed!
Today was special to me because I decided to skip out on lunch and stay behind at the site to tutor Wesley. I was able to go over some questions with him the first day and he seemed really receptive to the things I was saying so I thought it was important for me to continue the tutoring. When everyone left the site, I sat down for awhile with Chris and Wesley and just talked about some of their life experiences. Simply put, I could never imagine having gone through some of the things they have seen... it really helped me put my own life in perspective and see that the issues that I consider to be highly problematic are simply just inconveniences. I have a tendency to make mountains out of mole hills, so to speak, so being able to sit down and listen to their personal plights really helped me get a better perspective on my own life and also hopefully allowed them to get some things off their chests. I was also able to step back and re-evaluate my personal opinions on drug use. I think it's easy to see people who are addicted to drugs as weak willed or criminal, but the reality of the situation is that most of these people have gone through truly traumatic experiences. They turn to drugs to get away from their daily lives and escape the pain; granted, this is not the healthiest way to cope with pain, but it is certainly EASIER to turn to drugs rather than face your demons and confront your hurt and suffering head on. Anywho, after I spoke to Chris and Wesley for awhile, I grabbed some chips and went into the computer room with Wesley to study for his GED. Wesley is VERY intelligent... just because he doesn't have his HS diploma shouldn't imply that he doesn't have knowledge. For starters, he is great at his construction job. He also knows so much about the land and the river; he can point out different types of water patterns in the creek and can pretty much throw a stick in the river and tell you what path it will take through the water depending on where it starts. He also knows all the different animals and rocks in the WV region. But I digress again. We began to study and it surprised me how willing he is to listen and how much he truly cares about getting his GED. He has dreams and goals just like the rest of us, and although they may be smaller in scale in comparison to ours, they are still things that he cares about and hopes to achieve. The more I go to the site and meet with the troubled youth, the more obvious it becomes how different we are on the surface. The more I sit down and think about it though, the more and more similar we all become- our experiences are different, but we all experience happiness and sadness, fulfillment and disappointment, pain and joy. Wesley loves to sit by the creek and think and he listens to punk rock music...I enjoy shopping and singing to John Mayer, but for this moment in time, despite all our differences, we can come together through our emotions and feelings and be exactly the same.
Today was a slower work day in terms of my personal productivity. I was REALLY tired so I don't think I got as much done as a I could have but I had really awesome conversations with people today which has become my favorite part of the trip. I did spackle quite a lot, to the point of arm pain. Wesley talked about how he feels it is better to keep things inside instead of letting them out and I find I am guilty of that as well because sometimes saying what you feel is just too ugly or to difficult. In addition, you have to find the right person to vent to. Lindsie and I talked with Chris for a very long time and I feel he is really really intelligent. He knows what he believes in and has a good argument to back up what he thinks and why he thinks it which I feel is very important in communicating your opinions to someone. Chris said no matter who the president was he wouldn't like them because he feels if the United States was founded as a country to escape monarchy there should not be basically the same thing. He said he watches CNN a lot just to see what the government is putting out. He also talked about how his sister was shot by his brother when they were five and almost two respectively. This caused his mother to want stricter gun laws whereas Chris, since he wasn't born at the time, feels guns are alright for hunting but using them in a violent way, to fight, makes you a coward. It seems from the woman sitting on her porch with a cigarette and a beer, to the people we work with and beyond, everyone has a story. It makes you think about your own story, what you have to tell, and what you would say if someone asked. So today I think the lesson besides how to do a perfect spackle, is to be ready with your story at all times.
Today we celebrated Shabbat. We didn't work or cook. Most of us took showers and used electricity. Since we couldn't build, most of us went on a hike. It was really beautiful to walk up the mountain at the end of Beard's Fork. The trees here are so much greener! After a while the paved road gave way to a dirt path, up a steep mountain side. It was really hot and muggy. A few people turned back but Lindsey, Alisia, Mike and I continued on. We wanted to see what was at the end of the trail. There was a coal mine there and we wanted to find it. We pushed on up the mountain side, marveling at the valleys and the endless mountains covered in green trees. At one point, we wanted to turn back but Mike wanted to go on by himself. We didn't want to let him do that so we walked for a little bit more and then we all turned around. Coming down was a lot easier than going up!!! I was glad that I was able to hike so much. I am not in the best of shape but I was working on it this past semester so I was proud that I could accomplish such a hike. After we ate dinner we and did a Havdalah service outside. Then we loaded up the car and went to Wal-Mart to buy bathing suits for our White water rafting trip tomorrow!!!!!
The Christian Sabbath: Day of rest for most here in the outskirts of the Bible Belt, but for the Break New Ground group from SUNY Binghamton, it was quite the opposite. We were forced to stray from our usual volunteer work with SALS, and aimed for a day of active recreation. The day got off to a later start than usual to do the necessary recovery from a rather eventful late-night Motzei-Shabbos trip to Wal-Mart and a gas station convenient store.
We first visited to the highest arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, the New River Gorge Bridge. (I bought an insanely cool train whistle, which everyone thought was the coolest thing ever, and they wanted to borrow it, but I would not let them because it was the coolest whistle, ever. Later that day, It mysteriously disappeared.) There was a stair viewing area, where we were able to descend several hundred stairs to a ledge that grants one a better view into the gorge. Michael decided it would be a grand idea to climb off the ledge (onto a cliff a few thousand feet up), and dangling on the edge: "Would you not like to be, sitting on top of the world with your legs hanging free."
We then sauntered over to Class VI to picnic, play on a swing set, and get ready for our whitewater adventure. Our lifejackets and helmets were fitted, and on the bus ride down to the river, we were entertained with gory details on what could possible happen to us. Excited, and absolutely terrified with the idea of being sucked under a rock with a Volkswagen bus for the rest of eternity, we boarded the raft with our river guide, Zach. After failing our paddle test, he reluctantly took us down the rest of the river, but only after warning us that "if it comes between my life and yours, I'll punch you in the face; just ask the guy from Ohio." The Hudson River pales in comparison. Within minutes of our journey, we were going through class three and four rapids, and eventually progressed to class five rapids. Shana and I were in the front of the raft, and we were continuously pummeled with walls of water. Michael also wanted to take part in the experience, so the three of us masochistically rotated positions in the raft.
Aside from his brazen stories about strippers wearing only needle tracks, Zach was full of stories about the history of the rapids and the area. He then told us about the company store that was located on the river; coal miners used to not be paid in cash, but in welfare-like coupons that could only be used in certain stores. This did not allow for people to save money or to leave the coal mining business: Zach explained it as being a sort of "legal slavery". The coal mining companies used to promise free transportation and a job in Brooklyn (West Virginia) for new immigrants. Thinking this job opportunity was in New York, many would fall into this corrupt trap. By the time they realize that they are in West Virginia and not New York, they are already indebted to the coal mining companies and are forced to work in the coal mines. This story helped partly explain the origins of the perpetual cycle of poverty in West Virginia. These coal mines along the river are no longer in use, but much of the poverty is still intact.
We finished our journey down the river, with Becca being the only casualty. She fell off the raft on the first rapids, and we decided that it would be better for everyone for her to find her way back to the van. Although the raft did not tip over, and we did not get stuck on any rocks, we were told that mostly luck got us down the river. Or, as Lucas put it, "it was not luck; it is because we're the chosen people." Rikki
Today was our last day of work. I will be sad to leave tomorrow and say goodbye to the people that have become a "community" over the past week. Who but Rikki would walk into a room, glare at us, and say quickly and loudly HARRY POTTER? And Shana and Rikki and Becca playing Palace, and Mike singing in the shower so loud we can hear him clearly. Luke reading and then sleeping on the couch. Since today was Memorial Day, the guys didn't come into work. Also, Ralph's car was broken so Artie went to pick him up so he could tell us what needed to be done. The 10 of us sanded and started priming what will be bedrooms. Mostly though we talked and listened to my mp3 player. Artie and Ralph came over for lunch and we took a long break and talked to them about their experiences. Ralph had spent the weekend helping some friends out who were going through really rough times. Artie spoke about why he ended up back in Beard's Fork taking care of his mom. Hopefully they will come back tonight for dinner. Both of them really care about others and want to help. Sometimes they get frustrated with some of the guys who aren't pulling their weight in the program, and as much as they like to help, they'd rather have people who really want to learn and get their GED.
Emily and I somehow got to talking to Artie during the day about the industries that have taken over West Virginia and exploit the land and people. He said that way back, people owned acres and acres of land, and when the coal mining companies came and asked to buy the mineral rights, the original owners didn't really understand what was going on, and at the time the money that was offered was substantial enough. So now, people own really small plots of land, and companies from other states own the rest. Apparently, the beautiful mountains that we saw walking up the road are not owned by West Virginians, but companies from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, et cetera. Artie said that there was a coal mine up the trail but it was so hidden that even he, who has been here his whole life, couldn't find it.
He also spoke about his interest in geneology and that he has tracked his family back generations and created an enormous family tree . He has uncovered a lot of history and relatives through his searches online and at the local archives.
A poem about Rikki:
Rikki's hair is curled
She makes noises like a bird
And Harry Potter
Rikki's Poem about Me:
Neglected limbs hang
‘neath her torso. Where's the sun-
Tan lotion Sarah?
Now a few guys are here - Chris, Wesley and Wesley. We are going to eat with them and hopefully get to know them a little bit better. I will be sad to leave tomorrow. All in all we had a great experience here and accomplished a lot in the dorm. Hopefully we made an impact and hopefully we were all impacted by this trip for the better.
Monday May 25, 2009 (Memorial Day)
It is ironic
to be in a place like Beards Fork, West Virginia on one of the most American of
holidays, Memorial Day. The irony of the situation stems from the fact that
many of Americas "forgotten people" live in this area of the United
States. Help is minimal in these parts and when this area is juxtaposed with
the rest of America the idea of income
inequality can no longer be characterized by such a word as gap, but rather the
inequality between the rich and the poor of this land should be viewed as a huge
gaping chasm. Many live pay check to pay check (if they are lucky enough to get
a pay check at all) others sleep in cars or tents just to get by. Yesterday our
whitewater rafting guide told us that when he brought his pay stubs into the
unemployment office they did not believe that he actually made so little in a
year, while he did not give us an exact figure I'm sure the sum was not great.
It is stories like these that have struck me the hardest while on this trip. We
are leaving tomorrow to go back to our comfortable lives in big cities or our
small quaint capraesque suburbs, so it is only logical to ask ourselves what
have we done to leave this place better than how we found it?
have been frustrated by this trip. Not due to a lack of tangible progress, but
rather by the inability of many others to see that not all progress must be
tangible. Many have been preoccupied by sheet rock and spackel in the hopes of
seeing a whole room completed by the end of the week, now while this may be well
and good in its own right it is not what I came here to do. I came here to
learn about the people of this region, experience their ways of life, observe
their culture, hear their stories, and hopefully bring awareness to their
plight. While some of my fellow volunteers have calculated the amount of
"man-hours" we as a group have contributed (something in the ballpark
of 240 hours by weeks end), I would like to take the opportunity to remind my
peers that the value of a steady shoulder to lean on or an engaged listener to
speak with is immeasurable. It may very well be the things we cannot see that
have made the biggest impact this week.
l came down to
West Virginia with the thought in my head that I would enlighten these people
and show them the "proper" way to live life. However, after hearing
the stories of many of these young men, that I have had the honor to work side
by side with, it is I that has been enlightened. Their stories range from
murder to drug abuse to abusive parents. It is absolutely incredible to think
that someone my age or even younger has experienced such hardship and been able
to fight hard enough to try and come out the other side. They are not afraid to
tell their tales of woe for they do not see them that way, rather they wear
these stories as badges of honor in an attempt to show their strength despite
all that life has thrown at them. This is an admirable quality and one that I
have observed this week and will surely talk about when I am back in New York.
So did we make
a difference? While this question may need to be answered individually I
believe we did, we may not see it now but I think it is there. Simply listening
to the stories of the youth, offering advice, and being actively engaged in
their lives (if only for a brief moment) may be the only difference we needed
to make and may show them that the world outside of Beards Fork does care and
can help. The youth have changed me in many ways and I will do my very best to
raise awareness about their situation and hopefully I will return to Beards
Fork in the near future.
We're in the airport now, and my plane leaves in about half an hour. It will be sad to go but we had a great trip, great people, great experiences and great memories!!!