After a fire, a volunteer learns how much he is loved

by John Iwasaki

For the past nine years, Pascal Harsh did more than drive children home four days a week as a volunteer for World Vision's KidREACH program in Brownton, West Virginia. He also acted as a "second grandfather" to children in the coal community, someone whose gruff exterior belied a warm and gentle heart.

Pascal Harsh

MaKayla playfully sprays Pascal Harsh's beard during a fundraising carnival for the volunteer driver in Brownton, West Virginia.

Pascal learned just how deeply he was loved after a fire on November 29 destroyed his farm home of 42 years, leaving him with "not even a comb to brush my hair."

He and his wife, Donna, had no fire insurance. The community began donating money, food, and clothing. Children at Mount Vernon Elementary School in Brownton, where more than 50 of them are tutored and mentored in the after-school KidREACH program, organized a fundraising carnival on December 19 that raised $753.

"People have been very, very, very generous," Pascal said as Christmas approached. "People not even in this county. They even sent money to me from out of state. People I do not even know. It's been truly, truly amazing."

When KidREACH is in session, Pascal spends three hours each afternoon picking up a van at World Vision's field site in Philippi, West Virginia, driving at least 10 miles to Brownton, and making several trips to take two dozen children home. He has gotten to know the children and their families in Brownton, a community with deep financial needs.

Asked why he volunteers in the KidREACH program, Pascal replied: "I'm a religious person. God has (put) the love in my heart to love those kids."

For Pascal, "it's not just a job. This is his ministry," said Shelby Dettinger, grants program officer for World Vision in Appalachia. "He knows what's going on in children's lives."

Pascal Harsh

Pascal Harsh emerges with a bright beard to the delight of students, many of whom participate in World Vision's KidREACH program.

Even on the day of the fire, Pascal insisted on fulfilling his volunteer duties. "He said, 'If I don't come, the kids can't come to KidREACH because they don't have rides,' " said Tammy Tucker, principal of Mount Vernon Elementary. "The kids say, 'I know Pascal loves me.' "

Shelby, 11, a fifth-grader at Mount Vernon Elementary, was crushed when she learned of the fire.

"Me and Pascal had become very close," she said. "He was like my second grandfather. I had a birthday coming up. All my (gift) money, I donated to him. I care about him. He doesn't get money for driving the van but he does it because he loves us."

Fourth-grader Eli, 10, said Pascal keeps tabs on his grandfather, who was injured in a tractor accident. "My family is trying to help him, the same way he helps us," Eli said.

Children spearheaded the fundraiser by selling tickets, ordering pizza, posting flyers, and organizing games and activities.

"They're wonderful kids to do something on their own," Pascal said. "What can I say? People always hear about bad people and bad kids. I tell you, there are a lot of good people—and good kids, too."

Pascal—who had worked in the woods, at the county assessor's office, and as a truck driver before becoming disabled—initially found it difficult to accept donations after the fire. He and Donna are living temporarily in a house owned by a church.

"I've never been much of a taker," he said. "It's hard for me. My preacher said, 'Haven't you always felt blessed when you helped other people? Don't you think it's time for people to help you?' "

Another blessing came when a dentist in a neighboring county, Dr. Jeffrey Browning of Bridgeport, West Virginia, donated his time and materials to create a new set of dentures for Pascal's wife. Donna's dentures were lost in the fire.

The entire community response to Pascal's plight demonstrates "what it means to care about someone more than yourself," said Carol Malcolm-Parsons, KidREACH director for World Vision in Appalachia.

Tucker said she doesn’t know what the KidREACH program would do without Pascal, or vice versa.

"He thinks of the children as his family," especially after the fire, the principal said. "He said, 'I need something normal in my life. These kids need me—and I need them.' "