Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why are we taking this trip?

For those that don’t know, the two of us met 15 years ago on a college volunteer service trip to Appalachia. The group went on a hike and we all sat down on the trail to take a quick break. Someone further up the trail kicked a rock, and it came rolling down. It was headed right for Mary, and Kristen reached out and caught it. That little life-saving moment, started us talking and was the beginning of quite a friendship.

It was later that week, that Mary got to witness Kristen eat the first PBJ of her life.

After college, we both did the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, coincidentally both in Missoula, Montana (we're two years apart and both had different preferences where we wanted to go, but the powers that be sent us to Missoula). While in JVC, Mary worked as a Case Manager at a YWCA Women's Shelter and Kristen worked at the children's program at that same shelter and also worked at the Missoula Food Bank. JVC is a program in which people commit a year to living in community with other volunteers, work for social justice, and live on a small stipend. We both had incredible experiences during JVC and that year had a strong influence on Mary's decision to pursue a career in Social Work and Kristen's decision to become a teacher.

That first trip to Appalachia set the bar for travel because we quickly realized the most fun and most memorable trips are those where we’re contributing positively to a community in some way. Between the two of us, we’ve since done volunteer trips to New Orleans, Tanzania, South Dakota, Peru, Oregon, and Mexico.

These trips have helped shape who we are and how we see the world. This is what led us to plan what we expect to be the trip of a lifetime. With no kids, pets or mortgages tying us down, it seems like if it's going to happen, now is the time. At least that's what most of our 50 year old friends are telling us.

Our goal is to not only help organizations and people that desperately need it through hands-on work and financial contributions, but to learn about the issues affecting these communities through talking to the people that live there. Given our backgrounds, we’re interested in broad issues of education, aging, and environmental concerns, but we’re also interested in things like what music Hungarian kids are listening to these days, how to make traditional Thai food, and what it smells like in the Costa Rican jungle.

We’re setting out with open minds and hope this trip is the beginning of a larger purpose in expanding our knowledge about the world, other cultures and how we can come back to the US and do our best to make a positive difference in our own communities.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Habitat for Humanity in Tanzania

Here's a video of a Habitat for Humanity's volunteer experience in Tanzania. It reminds me a lot of my own experience there. This guy did an amazing job putting this video together. Very inspiring. Plus, he's hilarious. Check it out.

Tsunami Volunteer Center

Here's video of the Tsunami Volunteer Center and some of the volunteer work that is being done there.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


This video provides a good overview of the situation many are experiencing in Cambodia and how we can help.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Green as we go

Traveling around the world obviously involves a wee bit of waste in the way of fuel. There's no way to really limit that since neither of us is up for the swim. But we do hope to be as environmentally conscious as we can on this trip. Some of our ideas:

-Refill our water bottles whenever possible.

-Buy locally.

-Take public transportation and/or walk whenever possible.

-Pack light and don't buy stuff we don't really need.

-Learn more about organic farming from our work in Italy and Costa Rica.

-Do the 'ol leave only footprints and take only pictures.

-See what others are doing in their communities to preserve and protect our environment. Then tell y'all about it.

Any other ideas?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Lima, Peru

In 2005 I was working at The University of San Francisco in the Campus Ministry Department organizing community service trips for the students. Our Spring Break trip to Guatemala was canceled a few months before we were supposed to leave, but thankfully my co-worker, Kique, happened to be from Lima and his mother was the director of a Non-Government Organization called Generacion. She was very willing to have us come to Generacion and share in the joy of her work.

Generaction's main goal is to promote and protect the rights of street children. Each day we met up and hung out with the children that lived at and flocked to the Generacion houses. The main house was the hub of activity. Kids were studying for school, making ceramics in their little studio, playing amazing music, cooling off in a small pool, and playing tons and tons of futbol. These kids played soccer night and day...in their bare feet. We just participated in all of this with them and got a glimpse into their life at Generacion.

In the evening we visited the kids at El Rio, who weren't quite ready to come to the house, but would greet the Generacion outreach workers with anticipation and excitement. They caught them and us up on the weeks events from the River, their home . These kids ranged in age from a few months to young adults. They seemed to live as a family with various roles taken on by certain children.

We also stopped by and met the young teenage mothers who lived at a separate house that housed a bakery store front. The girls did the baking and worked the counter. They learned life skills while getting support with raising their children.

I am often at a loss of words to describe my experiences here. But I do know that the "street kids" taught me quite a bit about generosity and hope.

This You Tube clip shows a bit about Generacion and maybe Kique has summed it up for me.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Katrina Relief 2006: Part 2:

Weekend at Bernie's

The Rev lived next door to a St. Gabe’s parishioner, where volunteers were working the day before. He asked if there was any way people could help clean out his shed and the St. Gabe’s crew put us on the case. Our 2nd day of work began by cleaning up the shed and all of its contents which were in a huge pile in The Rev’s backyard. Our group was joined by Fr. Edward, a positively lovely Nigerian priest, who now works at a school in San Francisco. In true “It’s a small world” form, we knew a bunch of the same people.

The Rev's Shed

Alison, Andrew’s brother’s girlfriend, arrived on the scene that morning to take photos. She’s a professional photographer and we were really lucky to have Alison and her mad skills accompany us on our adventure. Check out Alison's incredible stuff at www.inkcapture.com. And her New Orleans pics HERE.

While we were shoveling shed parts, Alison and her photographic eye wandered the neighborhood. It was a bit like a ghost town. There were few, if any, people inhabiting the homes there. The only person to be found was a guy stealing copper piping from a house across the street from the Rev’s. I have no idea what the copper pipe thief’s situation is. Chances are he could be really desperate. But dude, stealing someone’s pipes? That’s horrible karma.

After lunch at headquarters (St. Gabe’s), we worked on gutting D’Alise’s house. When we arrived, nail removal was the main job. There were approximately a bagillion nails that needed to be removed. Also in attendance for nail removal was Mark, Jen and Greg, a very friendly trio whose family is from New Orleans. Then we had Britney the high school girl who was in town from Chicago visiting her sister and wanted to help out. Britney and her thick Southside Chicago accent were a welcome addition. She worked like crazy and was friendly as heck. Then there were the two families from Texas. We like to call them the Sweeper Family cause boy did that gang like to sweep! Each would grab a broom and voila- sweeper madness! They’re also known for suggesting to Andrew that he take down a concrete wall by kicking it. He was on the lookout for a sledgehammer and each of the three male sweepers suggested at different times that he just kick it. That amazing suggestion was followed by the sweeper trying to kick it and then saying, “Ow! My foot!” Silly Sweeper Family, you’re not the Concrete Wall Kicking Family! Get back to sweeping!

Angie and Fr. Ed in a sea of fiberglass and dust

That night we went to dinner with Charlie and his friends Lisa and Chad at a place in the French Quarter called Olivier’s. Lisa and Chad told us about their experience when Katrina hit, and our waiter chimed in with his story. He and his cat sought shelter for days on the top floor of the restaurant. He said his cat seemed annoyed but he told him, “Look out the window, cat. You’ve got it good.”

The next day we were joined by Nick and Maya, a nice down-to-earth duo of fitness trainers from Milwaukee. We were sent to help Bernie, a St. Gabe’s parishioner, clean out her parents’ garage. Bernie’s parents were living in Houston and hadn’t been back since the storm. We arrived on the scene, happy to help out. Andrew smashed the fence lock with a sledgehammer so we could get to the garage. He gingerly opened the garage door, and burst out laughing. I glanced in and joined him with a round of my own nervous laughter. We were faced with a wall of stuff. The entire garage was filled, from floor to ceiling, with stuff. Water-logged stuff. Armed with our trusty masks and work gloves, we all began grabbing and chucking an array of items out of the garage and into the garbage cans. Lamps and tools and lawn ornaments, oh my. We eventually cleared a path to the main door and after various attempts to break the lock on the garage door, Nick managed to saw a few wires that allowed us to open the door. And by open, I mean four people drag a huge garage door off of its hinges and break it. Our cleaning frenzy really pissed off the hundred of roaches that had found their home in that dank garage. They kept relocating to new sections, only to be uncovered again and again.

Just when we were all pretty sure that Ava was the nicest woman on the planet, we met Bernie. She showed up to help out, greeting us with the brightest, most sincere smile I’ve ever seen. She quickly put on her work gloves and respirator mask and got to work, with a spring in her step. Bernie’s stories, insight, and sense of humor were inspiring and amazing. Bernie’s entire family, including her parents, four sisters and two brothers, were displaced because of Katrina. Bernie had the opportunity to leave the city but her place of employment told her that if she didn’t show up to work at 8am the next day she would lose her job. She rented an apartment in New Orleans, where she is still living. Bernie’s husband is a nurse and working in Florida, because he can’t find a job in New Orleans. He was interviewing for a nursing job that was four hours away, and will probably take it if he’s given an offer. Bernie’s house was also ruined from the flood. The house is now gutted, and she and her husband are trying to figure out what to do with it. Right now, if they sold it, they would only get $20,000.

Bernie clears things out of her parents' garage

It was heartbreaking to trash a stranger’s belongings. I’m sure every item had a story behind it- the bag full of dress patterns, the suitcase full of albums and dancing shoes, and the old beat up guitar. We came across a bag full of papers that was in good shape. It turned out to be poems that Bernie’s sister wrote when she was a little girl. Bernie’s face lit up as she read some of the poems aloud.

Bernie and her sister are afraid for her parents to see their house. A neighbor’s elderly parent went back to look at her house, and died of a heart attack. Bernie said she keeps trying to explain the situation to her mother, but that her mom doesn’t understand how bad the situation is. Bernie’s mom asked if she was able to save her plant. It breaks my heart every time I think about that. Her entire house has been gutted, and she’s hoping that her plant made it through okay. One of Bernie’s mom’s other requests came right after the storm hit. She had hidden savings bonds in the freezer and wanted Bernie to see if they were still there. Bernie, her husband, and some friends showed up to the house with waist high rubber boots and masks. Bernie gagged her way through horrific smells and discovered that the fridge was lying long ways on top of the stove. Knowing that finding the bonds was going to be nearly impossible, she decided to open the freezer and just to make sure they weren’t in there. She found what looked like sludge with no real recognizable items in it, except for a slew of maggots. She scooped through it quickly and knew that the bonds were a lost cause.

Bernie’s husband was concerned about his wedding ring, which he left in a box in their house. Bernie told him not to worry about it- they could get a new ring. But he was determined. His friend, who is a scuba diver, put on his scuba gear, and dove into the waist deep water full of rats and literal crap. After some searching, he found the little box with the wedding ring in the corner of the living room. He also managed to find Bernie’s class ring. Damn…there’s a good friend for ya.

The crew in front of Bernie's parents' house

After the real life Weekend at Bernie’s, we continued to work on clearing out D’Alise’s house. Angie found her new career as a professional floor remover. She was a machine, ripping that stuff out in seconds. Angie made that ridiculously exhausting job look simple. On our last day of work, Jocelyn gave us a tour of the city. We drove through the ninth ward, which, in some parts, looks like a barren wasteland. Often, the only thing remaining were a few concrete stairs that led to nothing. The majority of people who have returned to the city are white, wealthy and older. How will this affect the decision regarding rebuilding in the ninth ward? Will their community remain?

Relaxing in the tub after ripping out flooring

One of the more hopeful parts of the tour was when we drove past Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians Village. There are blocks of new homes built in a traditional New Orleans style, with bright colors and welcoming front porches.

Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village

Our gang rang in the New Year in the French Quarter. Upon arrival at the Double Tree Hotel we were met with the news that even though we confirmed our reservation earlier in the day, they overbooked and we didn’t have a room. We enjoyed a round of drinks at the hotel bar while the manager sought out a room for us. Then we headed out to dinner. Our outdoor seating made for a great atmosphere, but the service was less than stellar. The chatty waitress wore thin, but the real kicker was the enormous fly Katy found in her Bloody Mary, only to be followed by the positively raw chicken on her salad. Maybe it was the New Orleans attitude rubbing off on us, but we all kept our sense of humor and had a great time. After about 4 minutes taking in the truly ridiculous goings-on on Bourbon street, we headed over to Jackson Square, where we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the giant bowl of gumbo drop at midnight, followed by some excellent fireworks.

It was a memorable and gratifying trip, to say the least. I strongly encourage everyone to experience post-Katrina New Orleans for themselves, whether it be volunteering your time to help people rebuild, donating some cash to one of the many worthy causes down there, or supporting the economy by enjoying the fantastic music, food, drinks and personality the city offers. I recommend all of the above.

Katrina Relief 2006: Part 1

Never underestimate the power of Evite. On a Sunday in September, Kristen and I, needing something to look forward to, discussed New Year’s plans and the possibility of assembling a crew of friends to trek down to New Orleans for some volunteer work and fun in the Big Easy. Our friend Andrew had gone a couple months before and was eager to go back. So…we crafted an Evite and sent it out to a ton of people that night. Within weeks Angie, Katy and Charlie were all on board. Andrew quickly scored us a place to stay and volunteer so we were all set to go.

Even though we were spread out all over the country, we managed a fairly direct road trip from the East Coast where a bunch of us were visiting family for the holidays. Andrew left Long Island at the crack of dawn the day after Christmas and picked me up in New Jersey. From there it was on to get Kristen in Philly, and then our final pick-up in Chevy Chase, Maryland to get Katy. Each stop armed us with a bit more conventional mom-wisdom of the “Don’t work too hard”, “You’re gonna have so much fun!” variety. We were ready. After bellies full of delicious artichoke chicken at Katy’s, we hit the road with more than enough CDs and snacks to get us to my brother Tom’s place in South Carolina, our stop for the night.

Or so we thought. Virginia. Frickin Virginia. It took us 4.5 hours to go 90 miles. Traffic near Richmond? What gives? Is that even a real city? I guess I’ll never find out because I can’t bare to go back there. If it weren’t for occasionally blasting Mark Morrison’s R&B jam, circa 1996, “Return of the Mack”, and taking car dancing to new levels, I don’t know if we would’ve survived. But thanks to that, a Toblerone the size of my leg (courtesy of Andrew’s mom), hilarious texts with Danny, Katy’s “Waffles or Pancakes” game, and our friendly Applebee’s waitresses (who said awesome stuff like “The whole frappin world is out shopping today!”), we made it to South Carolina by 1:30 am.

After watching a wee bit of the Chappelle Show with Tom, we crashed for the night, and then hit the road first thing in the morning. The next day’s driving was much more direct because there was no evil Virginia on the way. With the addition of Carole King’s “So Far Away” to our sing-along repertoire, we arrived in New Orleans ready to take on the world. Kristen, Katy and I all needed to get work boots, and Wallmart was the only place around. I generally boycott Wallmart, but desperate times call for desperate measures. No wonder so many people shop there! It’s so easy to forget about worker’s rights when you realize that a pair of steel toe work boots cost a mere 20 bucks! Health insurance, schmealth insurance- that fleece is 7 dollars!!! Katy, Kristen and I carefully selected work boots and compared styles and fits as if we were purchasing our wedding gowns. Meanwhile, Andrew patiently stood waiting with a “I’d rather be chewing glass” sort of look in his eye. Katy got Steve, Kristen had Kane and I had Bruce. Yes- each style of shoe had a male name. We decided that Steve and Bruce were partners. I think it gave me some satisfaction to know that Wallmart unknowingly sold us gay work boots.

At about 8 o’clock we arrived at St. Gabriel’s, aka St. Gabe’s, which is located in the Gentilly district. There was a group of about 30 former Jesuit Volunteers staying there as well. Katy, Kristen and I are all FJVs too but we didn’t sign up for that trip in time so we were our own renegade group. We walked into the church, where there was a section left of the alter where tables and chairs were set up for volunteer meals.

St. Gabe’s is the kind of church that practices what it preaches and then some. People in their community needed help and the staff and parishioners responded with gusto. They turned the abandoned classrooms into sleeping quarters for volunteers, had a room set up with tools and everything you might possibly need while on a work site, and had another area set up with a ton of food for volunteers. The staff asked the church community what help they needed and are responding to every request, whether it be gutting a house, clearing out a shed, or trying to find housing arrangements for those who haven’t yet returned. Many parishioners are now living more than an hour away but still make the trip to go to the 10:30am mass on Sunday. It’s one of the few places where people can see familiar faces and share trials and triumphs with others who are in a similar situation. St. Gabe’s is an inspiring community in a city where so many are desperately searching for connection.

After dinner, a quick game of Phase 10, and some chatting with old and new friends, I was ready to hit the hay. The hay being a thin mattress on a top bunk of an old stuffy classroom, with about 20 other people snoring, tossing, and turning around me. Thankfully I was exhausted so sleep came relatively quickly.

The next morning we were ready for our first work day. Andrew, Katy, Kristen and I were in the church eating breakfast and packing our lunches when Charlie arrived. Charlie is a friend of Kristen’s from San Francisco and is truly one of a kind. Clearly what our little group was missing was the addition of a hilarious, kind, interesting fabulous gay man who is a sign language interpreter by day, and in his free time walks on fire, does vision quests and reads tarot cards. Another bonus was that Charlie had spent three years in New Orleans so we had insider knowledge of the area.

Our job for the first day was to help clean up the daycare at Grace Episcopal Church in the Mid-city district. Eva greeted us immediately upon our arrival. There are a lot of very nice people in this world but it’s not often that I meet someone as genuinely kind and warm as Eva. She was so truly touched and appreciative that we had come to help out and she never missed an opportunity to thank us. Eva is the interim Director for the daycare, and is understandably eager to get it up and running. The more quickly families can get their children in daycare, the easier it will be for them to find stable employment and get back on their feet again.

Eva gave us a tour of the building and an overview of the progress made since the storm, and what still needs to be done. We met Ronald, the quiet and always helpful repairman. Can’t find the right tool? Ask Ronald. Don’t know where to put the trash? Just ask Ronald.

Most of the day was spent cleaning the very dirty floors to have it ready for the new flooring that was being delivered- that meant sweeping, shop vac-ing and mopping up a storm. There was also a little bit of hauling sheetrock thrown in for good measure. We quickly divvied up the jobs and got right to work. Eva assumed we had been working together for a long time and was shocked to find out it was our first day together. I must admit- it was amazing how well our group worked together and got along. Not one little tiff during the whole week. You’d think that back breaking work and lots of mold and dust would’ve inspired at least a minor disagreement, but we had none of that.

Before: Katy Rockin the Shop Vac

After: Katy, Charlie and Andrew show off the shiny floors

Eva is the kind of gal who sees challenge as opportunity. The two of us went to change the bag in the enormous shop vac and stared at each other for a second, thinking the other might know what to do. “Have you ever done this before?” she asked in her calm, quiet, unassuming way. “Nope. You?” I said. “Never. I guess we’re both going to learn something new today!” she said happily. After fiddling around with it for a minute, we were shop vac-ing our way to victory.

During breaks, Eva shared stories of her experience surviving the storm. Her husband worked for Lowe’s which remained opened during the storm. He continued to work and they wound up staying at the store when the storm hit. Eva and her husband lived right down the street from Grace Episcopal and were staying in a FEMA trailer while rehabbing their house. She said that many of her neighbors were camping out in their gutted houses and that the neighborhood was still without gas.

In the afternoon we cleaned up the huge yard. That involved a whole lotta raking, bagging leaves and cleaning the gigantic very dirty tarp on the sandbox. We ate lunch on the back porch and Eva asked, “What made you all come down here? I can’t imagine why you would choose to do this.” Her question made me think. In a way, it just seemed like something I did without much thought. Some friends and I were looking for a plan for our week off and going to New Orleans was as good an idea as any. But it was more than that. I needed to see firsthand what was going on down there. I wanted to talk to people who experienced that hell and find out what an average gal like me could do to help. I would hope that if my entire city was demolished and all my belongings and friends and community hang-outs were gone, that people would come lend a hand. And I wanted to sit around with friends and eat po boys and drink refreshing drinks.

After a long day of work, that is just what we did- after taking advantage of a nice shower. St. Gabe’s had a row of showers, with trash bag walls, set up for volunteers, complete with hot water that got cold just about 30 seconds sooner than I would’ve liked. But…it was a shower and for that I was grateful.

Andrew’s friend Angie flew in from Nashville in time to join us for dinner at Maspero’s in the French Quarter. What is it about breaded fried shrimp on a roll that tastes so heavenly? And the $2 Abitas were the perfect compliment. During dinner we followed our usual pattern of cracking up at things that were funny and many that weren’t that funny at all. Angie was our instant new best friend, Charlie and Katy taught us some sign language, and we celebrated a truly humbling and gratifying day by raising our glasses and toasting to Eva.

Dinner at Maspero's

HFH trip to Tanzania: July 1998

This was part of a letter I sent to people that donated to my Habitat for Humanity trip to Tanzania. It includes an overview of the work we did there.

After spending two days in the city of Arusha, the group of 18 Habitat volunteers headed to the very small village of Nkinga. When I say “headed” I mean we flew in on tiny planes (we had to weigh ourselves and our luggage before getting on the plane and because I was in the front seat, I had the opportunity to steer for a bit) and upon landing we were surrounded by a large portion of the 5000 Nkinga residents. Talk about a warm welcome. Exactly 3 people in our group spoke Swahili and about 6 people in the village spoke English. This of course made communication quite an adventure.

The work days began at about 8am. We would then be given our assignment for the day and split off into different groups. The lack of electricity puts a whole different twist on house building. Everything was made from scratch. The houses were very simple- brick walls and tiles roofs. Ask 12 different people what the correct mix was for bricks and you’re sure to get 12 different answers. Each group was led by a “fundi” or skilled worker. At about 10:30am each morning, we would take a “chai” break. The future homeowner would provide tea and a snack for everyone who was working at the site. The snack was usually a big ‘ol sweet potato, some roasted peanuts, or papaya. Then it was back to the grind. We’d break for lunch at about 12:30, at which point I’d usually head back to my little room, and nap under the mosquito netting. Then it was back to work from 2:30 to 5pm.

During breaks from work, we’d often play with the children who liked to hang out at the worksite. They’re all great at playing soccer, but teaching them stick ball was quite the process. Children were also very impressed with blowing bubbles. I learned basic Swahili counting from a group of kids who would write a number in the sand and then say the Swahili word for me.

While we were in Nkinga, we were able to finish two houses and begin three other houses. Plus we were able to make a large donation to the local HFH affiliate. But the experience wound up involving so much more than just building. From eating chipati and ugi, to watching a traditional dance competition, to teaching hundreds of Swahili speaking children the hokey pokey, to dressing up in katenges (the skirts and headdresses that the women wear) and trading recipes and cooking dinner with the women, to getting used to the lack of plumbing and electricity, to learning to greet the lizards and large nameless bugs with a smile, to sharpening my charade skills in order to communicate things like “how much cement should be in this mixture of spackle?”, the trip was a huge learning experience. Everyone we met was extremely friendly. Most of the people seemed very happy except the poverty was very extreme. The schools were in bad conditions and lacked teaching materials as well as a sufficient number of desks and chairs. One man said to me, “Oh…social worker Mary….please tell your friends in America what you saw here. We are very happy but we need help. We do not have the resources that you do in America. So we appreciate everything that your group has done for us.”

Getting to know my fellow American Habitat volunteers was a whole separate learning experience. We ranged in age from 15 to 78. There was a father/daughter pair. A brother/sister duo. A newlywed pair who made the Habitat experience a stop on their honeymoon trip around the world. Then we had Olive, the 78 year old woman who could lift rocks that were about 3 times her weight. Olive also recently went to clown school and brought her costume and did a show for the kids.

I could go on and on but I’ll stop now. The bottom line is that I am so thankful for each of you for helping to make this trip possible for me. Not only did you do a great service for the people of Nkinga and Habitat for Humanity, but you played a very important part in what was definitely one of the best experiences of my life.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Project Appalachia: March 1993

Kristen and I met on an "alternative Spring Break" trip to Appalachia, while we were at St. Joe's. This was an article that Mike, one of the guys on the trip, had published in the SJU newspaper. Just one guy's take on a service trip. He was right about finding friendships that lasted.

It was the best of times…and that about covers it. I have just spent a week in an area I’ve never been, helping people I’ve never known, with people I’ll never forget.

Hi, I’m an introverted outsider who prefers the fringes of society. Don’t ask me why I’m at St. Joe’s. For over three years now I’ve been questioning my decision to attend this institution. My own psyche has made it difficult for me to associate with the students who come here. I never knew if it was me or them, but I probably didn’t put the work into it I should have. However, after some strenuous persuasion I decided to join Project Appalachia this semester. I figured since I had a lot of construction knowledge and an affinity for those that occupy the lower economic social strata, I could at least be useful. Oh, did I underestimate the experience.

In my mind, I down-played whatever social interaction I would have with my fellow student volunteers. I was way off. I was “forced” to associate with people I would never have spoken to otherwise. There were students from all four year levels, business and liberal-arts majors, whackos and conservatives, men and women, various national heritages, and free thinkers and linear thinkers. It should have been a microcosm of society with cliques, conflicts and confusion. But instead, this varied group of individuals came together at work and at play, and made it the greatest and most worthwhile social event of my life.

This group that went to Kentucky consisted of sixteen student of an even distribution of men and women. I will remember all of them:

Matt, the fun loving, good natured friend of all, who couldn’t hammer a nail to save his life. He and I turned every sentence into a joke (if you know what I mean) and realized that shepherd and diesility are the instruments of peace.

Chuck, the conservative chef who could make hot dogs gourmet and river water into a laxative.

Megan, the happy, funny, love-of-an-eleven year old, who always made me smile. She was a great straight man, and I loved it.

Peggy, the straight-laced, take charge woman. She took all jobs, no matter how tedious and always took the time for a kind word.

Andy, the fresh-faced, boy next door, who will one day be a leader. He became like the younger brother I never had, enjoyed my bad jokes, and let me know it.

Glenn, the leader of this band of merry construction maniacs. Everyone knew he was the boss, but he never forced it, because he didn’t have to. My respect for him was instantaneous when we arrived in Kentucky.

Nicole, the only person I knew before I joined. She was able to put up with all my eccentricities, which were usually directed at her. She always made me feel like I was important, yet when I got too big for my britches, she gave me a shot to the knees. She is the greatest.

Tiffany, the braid-haired birthday girl who loved being in the mix, and learning something new. She was always able to make me laugh.

Ira, the Mario Andretti of van drivers. By the end of the week, I believed he was physically attached to the vans. His humor played an integral part of our camradarie.

Mike, one of the funniest and most hard working guys I have ever met. He did almost exclusively scut work and let everyone know it, but always with a laugh.

Lauren, the girl who had a flair for the obvious and tended to get it wrong. She took so many rips so well that I could do nothing but love and respect her.

Kristen, the grand-daughter of the cardboard granny. She had a razor tongue that always put me in line, but a sense of humor that floored me time and time again.

Mary, my constant opposition. If she said black, I said white. She could argue any topic I brought up. But more importantly, I saw my serious self in her all of the time. But she could be as whacked out as the rest of us. One day she will see that the true meaning of life is not dying.

Joe, my eccentric twin. A thin-lipped, hilarious, subtle whackado, who I could discuss every inane topic with, and make jokes about, so long as he doesn’t explode, so to speak.

Liza, my friend. I was forced to spend fifteen hours of virtual solitude with her, and in that time solved the question of the 51st state, the role of men and women in society, sexuality, religion, plumbing, and the need for friendship. She helped me realize that there is more to life that cynicism and static friendships. I hope she’s right.

As I write this now, it’s playtime and everyone is laughing and enjoying themselves. I realize that other articles will be written about this year’s Project Appalachia, probably from the angle of our work in the community and the benefits of Habitat for Humanity. But, I wanted to say thanks for making my last semester worthwhile, and just maybe for friendships that will last.

I hope that you will recognize these people I have described and tell them just how great they are. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again, but I know I will never forget them.

Michael W.