Demonstrating the Gospel in Appalachia

Mission trip volunteers build relationships while repairing homes

Story by John Iwasaki / Photos by Laura Reinhardt

A covered bridge in the Appalachian town of Philippi, West Virginia, marks the site of the first land battle of the Civil War. The historic clash on June 3, 1861, is reenacted annually in Philippi the week following Memorial Day.

Patricia Williams says the volunteers who repaired her home are "like family to me."

Though the holiday also signals the unofficial start of summer, hundreds of visitors to Philippi and several surrounding counties starting in June won't be coming for vacations or history lessons. Instead, they'll be volunteering—some for at least the seventh consecutive summer—to repair weathered homes and minister to children through mission trips organized by World Vision's U.S. Programs.

"I absolutely love it," says college student Shelby Cress, who led a work crew last summer at the home of Patricia Williams in the neighboring town of Grafton. "Every family, they keep me coming back. I feel wanted that they need my ability to help."

Volunteers from Shelby's church, Franklin Park Baptist in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, repaired Patricia's leaky roof, installed new joists and plywood, hung sheetrock, and nailed paneling over peeling walls.

A fanciful illustration on Patricia's kitchen wall depicts a unicorn, a castle in the sky, and a call to "Reach out for your dreams." The volunteers are a real-life answer for Patricia, who used to work as a caregiver for the elderly and is now disabled and living on Social Security.

Without the repairs done by volunteers, her house would "stay the way it was, because I couldn't do it," Patricia says over the buzz of electric drills and the staccato blasts of a power nailer. "These people are like family to me. They love on me and everything. All these kids call me 'Grandma.' When they left yesterday, I was as lonesome as I could get."

Aryanna, 5, sits on her grandparents' repaired porch. "I can play out here now," she says.

Developing relationships matter as much as making repairs, says Shelby, the daughter of a contractor: "It's not just the work. It's the families. We impacted someone's life."

About 550 volunteers, each staying for a week, will serve this summer in five communities in West Virginia from June 9 through August 3, except for the week of the Fourth of July. Nearly 6,300 volunteers, from retirees to children, have helped 480 local families since 2006.

"You don't have to go to another country to be a missionary," says Caleb Harrington, 16, from Living Stone Community Church in Washington, Pennsylvania. "You can go to your own state and change lives."

Across town from Patricia's home, a mission team from Pittsford Community Church near Rochester, New York, replaced a sagging front porch for John and Selena Montgomery. The couple struggles with health problems—John became disabled after a car accident, and Selena has heart and eye ailments—and are raising three of their grandchildren.
Volunteers also built a shed and painted the living room, kitchen cabinets, and a bedroom. But replacing the porch—so damaged by termites that the grandchildren weren't allowed to play on it—made the biggest difference.

"It's better to bless than to be blessed," Nora, 4, told her father.

"I love this porch," says granddaughter Aryanna, 5. "I can play out here now."

Volunteers "encouraged me to be stronger in the Lord," Selena says. "They let me cry on their shoulder…Our lives are better for meeting these people."

Jason and Tyson, the parents of three children ages 2 to 6, marvel at how volunteers from Grace Baptist Church in Bristol, Connecticut, installed sheetrock, insulation, windows, and electrical outlets, and corrected the level of the front room in their house. Without the help of the mission team, the couple figures it would have taken them years to save up enough money—Jason works 12-hour days as a welder—to do the job themselves.

"It's been a very inspiring experience, with love for a family they didn't even know," Jason says. "They came unselfishly to help. They acted like it was their privilege. To me, it's crazy—they're the ones doing all this work. They say it's all [by] the grace of the Lord. They won't accept any credit."

The displays of sacrifice and selflessness make such a deep impression on those helped that they often continue the repairs started on their homes, long after the mission teams have gone home. In some cases, the beneficiaries have volunteered to work on the homes of fellow Appalachians in need. It's "families helping themselves," says Kris Wamsley, World Vision's site program manager in Philippi. "Our mission trips are all about relationship-building."

Everything came together on the mission trip, says Leanne Roland: "God revealed himself time and time again."



Asked why they gave up a week of their time to repair homes and teach Vacation Bible School in Appalachia, several volunteers said they benefitted as much as the recipients.

"I thought it would strengthen my relationship with God by showing what it means to serve God—what he wants you to do," says Sammi Linkowski, a college student who attends New Community Church in Wexford, Pennsylvania. "I've been making relationships with some of the kids and getting some work done."

Craig Whiteford, leader of a team from Living Hope Church in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, says he and his wife, Hope, wanted their family of five "to give back and to understand what it means to be the gospel, not just to proclaim it." The essence of the volunteer week was captured when he asked his 4-year-old daughter, Nora, what the trip meant to her.

"It's better to bless than to be blessed," Nora replied.

"That really blew me away," Craig says. "God is working in the littlest ones."

Chuck Bongardt, who attends Craig's church, brought his wife, Donna Sue, and their two boys to Appalachia, where they painted a tan house the color of a yellow highlighter pen. (The homeowner wanted it "brighter than the sun," Chuck explains.)

If they had stayed at home that week, "we'd be self-focused instead of other-focused," Chuck says. "It's a good break from the excesses of home."

For Leanne Roland, who led a team from Christ Church at Grove Farm in Sewickley, two things stand out in the mission week: "One, how cool the family of God is. Two, watching the light bulbs come on for everyone. We can [teach about serving others], but to see it click, to see it all come together—God revealed himself time and time again."


Learn more about World Vision's mission trips in Appalachia and other parts of the U.S.