Joyce Napier sits in her living room, the sounds of drilling and hammering outside her front door punctuated by roosters crowing in the morning. Her 10-year-old granddaughter Sara plays on the carpet with a Chihuahua named Mo. The two were born in the same year, Joyce tells me, and grew up playing with and occasionally biting each other. Though Mo is now gray-whiskered and old-man crabby, Sara is freckled and red-headed, at the beginning of life.
“I love it here,” Joyce says. “I do. It’s peaceful and quiet. Nobody ever bothers us.” She gestures to the windows and to the land outside her trailer on this Rockcastle County hillside. “It’s beautiful back there. It’s so green. I own past those trees out there, to the driveway and all the way back there.”
Joyce was employed as a nurse’s aide for 29 years, often working two jobs at once in Berea and Mount Vernon. She and her long-time partner, Charles, paid off their land and the trailer, but their luck took a turn for the worse in 2000, when Joyce was injured in a car crash. That was followed by a second injury at work. Within a year, she had six surgeries, and as her health declined, she began to fall on the steps to her trailer and in the yard during wet weather. She became more and more isolated in her home in this already isolated part of eastern Kentucky. And then she learned about the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP).
“They had helped one of my neighbors out by putting up a ramp to her house,” Joyce says. “I called them, and they came out here and checked everything. They put me on a waiting list.”
Yesterday, two months after the initial visit, a group of CAP volunteers pulled up in her driveway. They brought trucks and a trailer full of building materials, and they got to work.
“Right now, we’re putting down joists,” says Colton Fitzjarrald, a long-term CAP volunteer from California. He’s talking to five members of a youth group from Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago. They’re here for a few days to help CAP’s Elderly Housing program, which does home repair projects for the elderly and disabled.
Colton picks up a metal plate and places it around the end of a thick piece of wood. “These are called joist hangers,” he says. “They’re very important. They’re going to hold the board up.”
He drills a screw into one of the joists, and as the screw bites deep into the wood, the drill makes a grating sound. “The drill is actually punching the screw in at the end,” he says. “That makes it easier.”
He hands the drill to youth group volunteer Alaina Kurylak, who seems unsure how to use it. Many CAP volunteers have never done construction work before coming here. Colton, Joyce tells me, had never even hammered a nail before he came to eastern Kentucky a year ago. Now, she says, he can build just about anything.
After a few tries, Alaina is able to drive another screw into the joist next to Colton’s, and the joist is pulled snugly against the side of the ramp. As the morning continues, these youth group volunteers will become more comfortable with the equipment and faster with the work.
“I love groups,” Colton says, referring to these short-term volunteer groups CAP gets periodically, usually from church or civic organizations. “We can get so much done, so fast.”
Between the church group, long-term volunteers and permanent CAP employees, more than a dozen people are working on Joyce’s ramp this morning. CAP employee Kenny McGuire is the project’s supervisor. He checks the volunteers’ work and gives instructions throughout the morning, but the crew clearly has been working together for some time. Like Colton, Teleia Stringfellow is a long-term volunteer who has been with CAP nearly a year. This project is bittersweet for both of them as they get ready to take the next step in their young lives.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d come to Kentucky,” Colton says. He decided to volunteer instead of heading straight to college because he wasn’t quite sure what to do with his life. He now has figured out that he wants to study nutrition and cultural studies. But he has learned far more than that during his year with CAP.
“My biggest job was the second job I did here. This job made me realize that coming to CAP was exactly what I needed to do,” he says. “We were told we were going to build a ramp for this elderly couple, and walking up to their house, I slipped twice on the ice and snow. This old woman was carrying the man down these icy stairs that I slipped on to get him to his regular doctor’s visits.” Now, Colton says, the couple can sit out on their deck, and the man can use a wheelchair to get down the ramp.
“When I first came to CAP, my intention was to make an impact—but it wasn’t me that made the impact on them; it was them who made the impact on me,” he says. “I thought I knew how to love people. Now I know.”
“Once they put in the floor joists, we come in and put on the rails,” says Teleia. She carries two bushels of spindles from the pile of supplies on the lawn next to the CAP trailer and places them on the deck. About a third of the ramp’s floor has been installed now, and Teleia can begin adding the spindles along the sides. Colton’s group has finished the joists and is now beginning to lay the cross boards that make up the floor of the ramp. Teleia already has been to see Joyce this morning.
“It’s so easy to get immersed in their stories,” Teleia says of CAP participants. “We’ll take a break and we’ll just listen.”
Teleia is from a suburb of Chicago, where she is one of seven children. She says it was hard to leave her brothers and sisters behind to come work for CAP for a year. “The youngest two, I raised them,” she says. “I miss them, but the best thing I can do for them is set a good example. I’ve gained so much self-awareness. This was the first thing I’ve done for myself, not based on others’ expectations.”
Besides giving a year of her life to service through CAP, that good example includes plans to study criminal justice. But Teleia is having a hard time with the idea of leaving CAP. “The people of Appalachia are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met,” she says. “Some of the stories I hear are horrifying. And these people are still able to find happiness. It’s phenomenal.”
She talks about a family whose floor had caved in and whose furniture was being held up by nothing but carpet. And she tells how participants who use the project’s services often give back by volunteering for CAP.
The Christian Appalachian Project has been serving the people of the region for 50 years. It is the 16th-largest human services charity in the country. Catholic priest Father Ralph W. Beiting of northern Kentucky founded the organization to help people help themselves out of poverty. He had been assigned to pastor a large part of eastern Kentucky and quickly learned that residents needed more than just spiritual support. CAP now draws volunteers from all over the country and beyond. Many are young people like Colton and Teleia who offer service while they search for their way in life. Volunteers take away life skills such as building and coordinating projects, working with children, helping families find resources such as housing and education, and learning to serve with respect in this rural area that is new to many of them. Their faith is often what brings them here, and, in turn, their faith is strengthened by their service.
Joyce is out on the deck now with Sara, joking around with Teleia, who is making fast progress with the spindles. As she drills them into the sides of the ramp, the structure begins to come together.
The group takes a break, and a few of the members throw a football in the yard. Alaina turns to look at the progress they’ve made. “I’m so excited,” she says. “This is starting to look like a real ramp.”
The volunteers are out bright and early the next morning, and Joyce has the coffee on. We’re sitting on the deck talking as the volunteers begin nailing down the boards on top of the spindles. This, Kenny says, is what makes the ramp look finished. Joyce is excited about the new addition.
“When I go grocery shopping, someone has to go with me because I can’t get the bags into the house,” she says. “This ramp is really going to help.”
She’ll be able to get out and trim her rose bushes again, she says, which have been out of reach because of the slippery ground. While the ramp is helping Joyce become more self-sufficient, other CAP programs have helped her family. Sara attended CAP’s Child Development Center before she went to kindergarten. She got a head start on reading and math, and still remembers the CAP volunteers who taught her there. Joyce and many area residents get supplemental groceries from Grateful Bread, CAP’s food pantry. CAP’s store for gently used clothing, Grateful Threadz, gets especially busy at the beginning of the school year as parents stop in to buy back-to-school clothes.
“There’s a lot of poverty right here in Mount Vernon,” Joyce says. “Work doesn’t pay enough around here, and there aren’t enough jobs. Drugs are so bad around here. People who are on these drugs—it’s very hard for them to get off of them.
“Some of the older people here don’t have a high school education,” she says. “I worked two jobs when I worked—Berea and here—but a lot of people don’t have cars. Cars are expensive, and some people literally can’t afford a vehicle to get to work. And with the high cost of rent, I know some people who don’t have a place to live at all. I’ve known people to stay in the woods, and under the bridge. They go down to the lake and sleep. Some of the churches opened up to people this winter, and they were full—we’ve never had a winter like that.”
Colton and Teleia have been to many homes with little insulation. The volunteers will add insulation and new windows to make the home more efficient and reduce utility costs. Joyce is on a waiting list for some further work on her home, which needs roof repairs.
For now, though, the ramp is a big improvement. Youth group volunteers walk up and down the ramp, filing down the edges where the top boards meet, to make the handrail smooth. After this job, the crew will head to another house that needs a smaller ramp. Then they have a list of larger repair jobs to do.
There are so many distressed homes in eastern Kentucky that CAP’s waiting list for its home repair programs can run up to two years long. The volunteers often want to do more for each resident but know they must fill the most pressing needs and then move on to help another participant.
Joyce says some people leave eastern Kentucky, looking for higher-paying jobs and more opportunity. But most don’t stay away. “The ones who do move come back,” she says. “This is their home.”
Joyce gives Teleia a hug and stands on the deck with her, looking at all the work the volunteers have done over a three-day period. Colton is taking a break to check their progress. They’re very close to being finished. “When you’re focused on one thing, it’s easy to forget about the big picture,” he says. “But then you stop and look at what you’ve built, and you think, ‘I did that.’ ”
For Joyce, the ramp is one more reason to be proud of her eastern Kentucky home. “When I hit 50, I went downhill,” she says. “When I hit 60, I went further. I’m going up at 70.”
Answering the Call to Service
CAP relies on volunteers to fulfill its mission in eastern Kentucky. Nearly 50,000 volunteers have helped, coming from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as more than 15 countries and six continents. Some serve as long-term volunteers for a year or more, and others stay for shorter periods of time. CAP’s “alternative spring break” home-repair programs—YouthFest and WorkFest—draw high school and college students to service. Volunteers of all ages are welcome at CAP’s one-week summer camps for children, Camp Andrew Jackson in McKee and Camp Shawnee near Prestonsburg. Additionally, CAP provides church and civic groups opportunities to serve eastern Kentucky during a short-term visit. For those unable to contribute volunteer hours to CAP, monetary donations are tax-deductible, christianapp.org.