Amanda Coyle was 15 the first time she went on an Appalachia Service Project mission.
It changed her life.
Now, she’s using the project to change the lives of teens here in Cicero.
“I used to live in New Jersey, and I started going on ASP when I was a teenager,” Coyle said. “Then I grew up, got married and moved to Cicero, and when I started attending Cicero Methodist Church, I asked the pastor if I could do it because I wanted to bring it to the teens here in Cicero.”
ASP is a national Christian organization that uses volunteers to repair substandard housing in Appalachia. Founded in 1969 by United Methodist Minister Rev. Glenn “Tex” Evans, its mission is to make homes warmer, safer and drier for their inhabitants.
The region of Appalachia encompasses the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The ASP serves 24 counties in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where poverty is rampant; 26 percent of families in the service area live at or below the poverty line, and 55,541 households have a median income of less than $10,000. That’s more than double the national average.
What accounts for this devastating poverty?
“Fundamentally, Central Appalachia’s problems stem from the fact that in an 80-county area, 72 percent of the surface acreage and 89 percent of the mineral rights are absentee-owned,” said the website for the ASP. “Historically much of this land has been greatly underassessed and undertaxed. As a result of this undertaxation, local municipalities have had very little revenue to finance adequate educational systems, construct and maintain water and sewage treatment facilities, provide for county landfills, roads, and basic health care.”
In many cases, homes handed down from generation to generation are the only possessions many families have. Those homes are often in very poor condition – roofs are leaky, windows are broken, floors are sagging and, in many cases, safety hazards proliferate. But in communities where parents have to choose between fixing up their homes and feeding their children, remodeling often ends up on the back burner.
That’s where volunteers like Coyle and the teens from Cicero Methodist come in. This is the second trip Coyle has organized through ASP; the first was in 2009. This year, Coyle and 18 volunteers were sent to Mann, W. Va., where they and three other churches were split into groups to work on several different homes.
“They assign you based on your skill set and the size of your group,” Coyle said. “We worked on tin roofing, insulation, dry walling, we built a window, we did some electrical work and paneling and we built a safe second story exit from a home.”
Coyle said the experience allowed the kids to gain some self-confidence by using their own hands to do the work.
“ASP is supervised by adults, but it’s really a youth-led organization,” she said. “It’s the youth who operate the power tools, and it’s the youth who do all the calculations in terms of the deductions of how to cut the drywall or angle to put up gutter so that it empties just right. That’s very empowering to our youth.”
Coyle said the experience is also very eye-opening.
“It’s eye-opening to an adult, but it’s especially eye-opening to a teen,” she said. “It makes you realize all of the things you take for granted. In this area, they make much tougher decisions. The toughest decision you have to make as a teen is, do I go to football game or dance? As a parent in this community, the questions are more like, do I enroll my kid in a sport I have to pay for or buy them medicine?”
Coyle shared a story of one woman whose house was part of the ASP project for the summer.
“One woman had saved all of her money for the summer and she spent all of it on groceries,” Coyle said. “The day before we left, they came and turned off the power because the bill hadn’t been paid. We were able to get it back on, but by then, she’d given the groceries to her neighbors because she didn’t want them to spoil.”
Tough choices like that one are typical in Mann and the surrounding communities, and they will continue to be so long after the volunteers are gone. That doesn’t mean help won’t be there when it’s needed.
“Last week, I heard from one of the families, and they have four children,” Coyle said. “She said one of the pipes had broken, and with school right around the corner, she didn’t know what she was going to do. She asked me to have the church pray for them, because she had to decide if she was going to buy new school clothes and school supplies for the kids, or get the pipes fixed and have running water for the family.”
Coyle shared the story with the group, and they immediately pulled together and sent $100 in school supplies to the family.
“That’s just not a choice anyone should have to make,” Coyle said.
Coyle will start recruiting for next summer’s mission trip in September. If you are interested in going, contact her at Amanda_M_Coyle@hotmail.com.
In addition to teen volunteers, ASP also has programs for adult and college volunteers. To learn more about it, visit asphome.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.