Our last night in Appalachia, we all sat around the campfire and held a wrap up session. Our site leader Ian recommended that we follow the format of one of his favorite radio shows, which would review events by saying the best part, the worst part, and what was learned. When the turn came for one of the girls in our group to speak, she talked about the hornet’s nest that she had had to spray on the house we were painting. As she sprayed the nest, she watched in shock as a hornet flew away from the nest, only to enter the house through a hole in a nearby window. Many houses have bee and even hornet problem on their exteriors, but what kind of condition is the house in when the hornets are on the inside. She admitted that the moment had been disheartening for her, since she realized that the paint we were putting on the house, despite making the house look much nicer, was only covering up the house’s more pressing problems.
I was able to empathize with how my classmate felt. I was aware that our group’s abilities and resources were severely limited so we could not do much about broken windows or rotting wood beams, but, at the same time, it hurt to realize I was powerless to do something about problems like hornets flying inside the house. I had come to Appalachia at least partially to make a difference in someone’s living condition, yet the most glaring deficiencies were impossible for me to attack.
Luckily, I had experienced this feeling before. At my SSLP this summer, I had gone through a period in which I had felt useless, and even a hindrance to really improving the lives of the homeless who came through the organization’s doors. However, over time, my perception began to change. While I had initially seen my lack of experience as a limiting factor, I realized inexperience gave me a fresh outlook on the work and gave the community an infusion of energy. Most importantly, I realized that even if I only had a small effect on those I encountered, it was an effect nonetheless. Having this experience enabled me to avoid the same paralyzing frustration in Appalachia.
No, the houses on which I had worked were not perfect, but they were slightly more habitable, and much prettier. This was an improvement that would not have been made if our group had not driven down. This point was driven home to me at one of the houses when we volunteered to take some junk off of the house’s porch. The wife was appreciative beyond measure of a job that took ten minutes and left the majority of the porch still dirty. But it was an improvement, and that was all that mattered to her.