When the Stow Presbyterian Church youth group departs on their annual summer mission trip to West Virginia, they know to expect some unforgettable moments.
Meeting individuals and families who are in desperate need and living in dire poverty just a few hours from Stow is an eye-opener for many of the students. Doing home improvement projects and being the recipients of the homeowners’ heartfelt appreciation is an emotional experience. Working and living together as a team for the week builds bonds of friendship.
Each summer for the past six years, students from the church have made the journey to the back woods of Appalachian Mountains to share Christ’s love and serve others. This year’s mission trip to Oak Hill, W.V., however, included a couple of surprises that made it a little more memorable than most.
“On Monday, our first work day, a little puppy wandered into our worksite,” said team leader Dave Fast. “The pup looked to be starving, flea ridden, without a collar and homeless. She was very sweet and tiny and the kids and I felt very bad for her.”
The team gave the pup some water and bits from their lunches and she slept under their canopy the whole day while they worked. The next day the pup was back and spent the day at the team’s worksite again. Several of the students wanted to take her home, Fast said. However, the logistics of keeping a puppy in her condition seemed difficult. They were being housed in a church for the week. One leader on the team had severe allergies, and another leader had brought her infant son on the trip. So the discussion ended and everyone went back to work.
“Our project was removing and replacing a rickety back porch and stairs with sturdy steps and porch,” Fast said. “The house looked like the stereotype of the ‘hillbilly home’ pictured in derisive stories on backwoods mountain folks. I don't doubt they survived on a meager retirement or disability check. He augments their income by making and selling fishing lures and necklaces.”
So grateful were the man and his wife that they asked for all of the team’s names to pray for them, told the students to friend them on Facebook, and insisted that they take four of five dozen lures and half a dozen necklaces in thanks. The students were touched by the gifts.
“Every year we meet someone like this couple, who struggle day to day making ends meet, but show contentment with what they have,” Fast said. “[They have] a better outlook than so many I know who have so much more here.”
After two long work days, the team took Wednesday off for some fun. They spent the day white water rafting and swimming at a local lake. Fast said he spent the day wondering about the puppy. On Thursday, they returned to their worksite…but the puppy was not to be found. Then, after a couple of hours, they heard a dog yelp and the puppy raced around the corner and cowered along the side of the house. They heard a large dog barking down the street. After asking around for an owner (there was none), Fast decided the pup was going home with them to Ohio.
They found a veterinarian’s office between the worksite and where they were being housed for the week, and got her a flea treatment and her first shots. The vet pronounced her healthy, though undernourished. The students named her Mollie. When none of the students’ parents (contacted by phone) were able to adopt her, Fast decided to take her home himself where she has since become a welcome addition to the family.
In addition to their furry souvenir, the trip back to Ohio was a bit of an adventure this year, too. The night before the team departed, an intense storm wiped out the power and phones for large portions of West Virginia, including Oak Hill.
“Dave asked me on Friday night if I had filled the gas tank on my truck,” team leader Jeff Capple said. “I hadn’t.” They realized that without power, gas station pumps would be inoperable. Fortunately, Fast was driving a rented van which had a full tank and could make it back to Stow without stopping for gas. The leaders decided to send Fast and all the students ahead on Saturday morning in the rental and have them call back to the remaining adult leaders in the truck if they saw any open gas stations.
“We tried to stop for gas a couple of times, but if the station was open, the pumps were closed or they couldn’t take credit cards because the phone lines were down,” Capple said. “We were a little nervous because once you’re in the mountains on I-77 there aren’t a lot of places to stop and our vehicle was travelling with the baby.” Fortunately, they found an open station with working pumps and managed to gather up enough cash to fill up and get home.
Ultimately, the puppy and the power outage became great side stories to the real reason for the trip—giving students a hands-on experience in bringing the love of Christ to those in need, which brought its own unforgettable memories.
One of the things the students look forward to most is meeting and spending time with the homeowners while they are on a worksite, Capple said. This time, however, his team worked nearly all week at three different sites without having the opportunity to meet anyone.
“One lady was in the hospital. Another project was at an empty church,” Capple said. “By midweek the students on my team said to me, ‘We like to do the work, but we haven’t met anyone yet.’”
On that Friday, the team was scheduled to do some exterior painting on a house and install a linoleum floor in the kitchen. Once again no one was home. The lady who owned the house was at work for the day.
“When we were done, we found out that the lady stored her food on the floor under the sink,” said sophomore Tim Wiley. “We didn’t think that was right.”
Capple inquired with the project oversight organization about buying upper cabinets for the kitchen and was told there were no funds left. However, the mission team had stayed well under budget for the trip and decided they could purchase the cabinets on their own and install them as a special surprise for the homeowner.
“When she got home from her job, she was so happy,” Wiley said. She started to cry, the girls on the work team started to cry.
“That was the moment we had been waiting for all week,” Capple said. Those moments help the students develop a better understanding of themselves, their world, and their faith.
“The beauty of working with young people is the maturity I get to watch them develop as they go from childlike 8th grade students to more adult-like high school seniors,” Fast said, and the group on this year’s trip seems to be maturing faster than most. As one student said about the trip:
“I am not a good singer nor am I good at teaching,” senior Zack Wiley said. “However, I am a hard worker and this mission trip allowed me to use the talents that I have been given to glorify God. I feel very blessed.”