By Steve Sears
The numbers are astounding.
Since 1969, nearly 415,000 volunteers involved, and 18,500 homes repaired.
Meet the Appalachia Service Project, where it’s about much more than grabbing a hammer and driving a nail into a soon-to-be-refurbished or newly-built-house. It’s more about relationships, and volunteers from Denville Community Church (DCC), a United Methodist church, venture one week every summer to aid the impoverished of the southeastern part of the United States by, yes, working hard, but also to build friendships and spread some hope.
The dates of the trip were June 29 – July 7, 2019, and the trip this year was made to Hancock County, Tennessee.
Husband and wife James and Kim Graceffo are ASP Team Leaders for DCC.
“We’ve also worked with other churches from (as far away as) California before,” adds James, speaking to the camaraderie of groups working together in service.
DCC has been taking part in ASP since 1992. Kim’s Dad traveled with the first team and many subsequent groups that ventured south. “Now I’m running the trip with my husband and Janice,” says Kim. “It does kind of feel like family tradition with a lot of the groups that go, myself included,” she says. “I know there are a lot of families in the church where it’s kind of expected that the kids grow up wanting to follow in their parents’ footsteps in going.”
Janice McCrostie is in her 5th year as Director of Youth Ministry at DCC. “Every year, all the anxieties and stresses of leadership evaporate as we watch the teams go out and help people who are in need. Creating friendships while making folks homes ‘Warmer, Safer & Drier’ is what keeps people coming back year after year. This was my fifth year in attendance and ASP has become a part of who I am. I do not see a summer passing in which I wouldn’t attend – a sentiment most of our members would agree with.”
“We are very proud of our team and all that they accomplish each year!”
“The service project operates over the course of the summer,” says James, “so we go for one week, and our church is split into a couple of different teams, and one of the teams will work on a house, and over the course of the summer there will be several different churches who will also work on that house – I think there were four this year.”
“We’re not usually building a new house,” says Kim, “it’s generally repairing issues in an existing house.”
“The goal,” interjects James, “is to make their homes warmer, safer, and drier.”
A brief history. The Appalachia Service Project celebrates 50 years in 2019, and it was started by Rev. Glenn “Tex” Evans, a United Methodist minister, in 1969. The focus of ASP’s programs are home repair and new home construction for low-income families in the Appalachian region of Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. ASP operates about 30 centers throughout that area.
There are challenges in planning for the trip and work to be done. “Some of the biggest challenges I have found are overcoming my own anxieties at being a leader our group deserves,” states McCrostie. “The DCC ASP teams is wholly dedicated to helping the people of Appalachia, and each year I hope to be a leader that can direct them towards that purpose with faith and love, truly being the hands and feet of Christ in Appalachia.”
“Sometimes when we do a home, we feel we’re putting a band-aid on a gushing wound,” says Kim, recognizing another concern. “Anything we do might make a year’s worth of difference but really the home might need to be replaced.” She then lauds ASP for addressing the issue. “ASP realizes that, too, and is actually taking an initiative right now to start building some new homes. They’re working through that right now and that could be a significant improvement. There are times when we really are doing a very temporary fix, it really needs more than that, and we’d really like to be able to give them that blessing. ASP is making that change right now to make that happen – they have started building new homes in some of their disaster recovery areas. So that is something they’re working to implement more in the future.”
Preparation for next summer’s trek starts when the current one ends. Fundraisers (summer car washes, February pancake dinners) are thought out for monies to rent vans, pay for those making the trip, and pay for food at the sites. Activities and meetings are held to start building the team to make the trip. “We are already making a list of people to go next year; we’re trying to figure out which way to go – it (the planning) starts right away,” says Kim.
One factor that is huge when the team from northern New Jersey visits the impoverished area is noticing the difference in lifestyle. “A lot of the places ASP has centers is in the poverty area for their respective state. A lot of the areas are pretty impoverished,” says James. “I know a lot of them are old coal mining towns. It’s a really big culture shock, coming from here and going down there. There’s a lot of things we’ll notice when we’re walking into a house that we might feel like correcting up here but it’s functional for them. What we really want to do is focus on the things that are really important for the family: making sure the house stays warm for the winter, the floor is solid, the roof isn’t going to leak.”
“It is very different there,” agrees Kim. “They survive on a lot less than we do. But every year, the youth that we bring kind of have a tremendous experience, that even though the people we serve don’t have a lot, they want to give back to us when were there. They host us for dinners, and their thanks mean so much, because we know they’re giving anything they can to help us out and pay us back for what we’re doing even though they can’t pay us back monetarily, and we wouldn’t ask them to.”
“Serve” is the key word. “One of the many mottos of the trip,” adds Kim, “in addition to ‘Warmer, Safer, and Drier’, is ‘It’s a relationship building ministry with home building on the side.’ So part of our priority is to build a bond with the homeowners, and sometimes even more than the roofs were fixing to give them hope, building a relationship with them, showing them that someone still cares, showing them that someone from New Jersey – someone many states away – still cares that they are living a safe life and are able to take care of the children, and so on.”
When trips end, friendships formed are kept, bonded through long distance via social media. Kim, who has been making the trip for ten years, has remained friends with three different homeowners. This year, the team built a wheelchair ramp for a homeowner who took phone numbers and addresses, the gentleman seeking to send out birthday and Christmas cards to volunteers. “He was so moved by the experience.”
Donations are welcome, including supporting the group’s fundraising efforts, but there are other ways donations can be made. Checks can be sent to Denville Community Church, but checks must be earmarked that they are for ASP.
“I think the trip has just as much an effect on us as the homeowners down there,” says James. “Especially seeing the youth go down. It takes a special youth to give up a week of their summer to do something like this, but seeing them go down, seeing them serving and realizing what some people are going through, it’s definitely a change, and they mature over the week..”
Kim adds, “Every year it refreshes my soul to see the youth that go on the trip and see how engaged they get with the homeowners, and some of the things they give up while being there. Often, we don’t have cell (phone) service, sometimes they’re climbing under the house with the possibility of encountering snakes and things…they’re willing to do something for someone who needs it.”
DCC invites everyone who would like to be included to attend and, in McCrostie’s words, “see who steps up to the plate. We do have to send ASP a tentative number of people, and we try our hardest to get as close as we can to that mark. This year we were almost right on the nose, only one under this year!”
Denville Community Church is located at 190 Diamond Spring Road and can be reached by calling (973) 627-1041. For more information about DCC ASP, visit www.denvillecommunitychurch.org/dcc-ASP.html. For information abut ASP in general, visit www.asphome.org.