Students, staff spend fall break helping residents of Appalachian region

November 10th, 2016 | SMWC


Karah Ellis (left), a junior at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, tried her hand at cutting wood during an Alternative Fall Break trip to Nazareth Farm near Salem, West Virginia on Oct. 16-22. In this photo, she had some help from a Nazareth staff member.

By Dianne Frances D. Powell

Karah Ellis, a junior at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, recently had an “eye-opening” experience.

During a week-long trip to the Appalachian region of the United States three weeks ago, Ellis performed tasks she has never done before, developed meaningful relationships with others and discovered many things about herself.

“I just experienced this awakening,” the Terre Haute resident said.

Ellis is one of six students and two staff members from the College who spent fall break at a rural West Virginia community in prayer, fellowship and service to others. This trip was an opportunity for students to learn not only about the history and culture of this region but also the importance of serving others.

Empowering students to effect positive change through service and social responsibility is at the heart of the College’s mission.

Dubbed the Alternative Fall Break, they stayed at Nazareth Farm, a Catholic community that provides service-retreat experiences. While there, they did a variety of tasks, from chopping wood and tending to the organic gardens, to cooking and upkeep of the grounds.

Joining students from other colleges, the group also served the local community by helping homeowners with home maintenance and construction.


Students Susan Fanizani, Ciera Yergeau, Karah Ellis and Kristin Zellers gained new experiences while volunteering at the Appalachian region last month during the Alternative Fall Break trip.

“Many of the students learned how to put a tin roof on a house, build rafters, construct a wheelchair ramp, put underpinning on a trailer and install soffit,” said Andrea Beyke, executive director of Mission Effectiveness.

But more importantly, Beyke adds, the participants were able to meet local residents; they learned about the plight of some of the poorest and marginalized Americans.

“I really learned to appreciate the people who live in rural poverty, particularly in Appalachia,” Beyke said. “They are strong, independent people who treasure their land, their families and their lives in the mountains.”

One resident, Debbie, made a big impact on Ellis.

Although experiencing hardship in life, Ellis said Debbie still expressed nothing but gratitude when she led the volunteer group in prayer, just before the group started work on the underpinning of her house. “Her spirit was really beautiful,” Ellis said.

But other experiences during this college trip strengthened the students’ spirits.

Wake up time for the students was early, although they never knew what time. The day started with prayer, followed by chores at the farm and community service; it usually ended with fellowship and closing prayer.

The participants had to tuck away cell phones, watches or other devices. To the question of “what time is it?” they were told, “God’s time.” They were given only three opportunities to take a shower during the week.


SMWC students and staff traveled on Oct. 16-22 to West Virginia, where they volunteered at Nazareth Farm. Andrea Beyke and Kalista Lawrence (back); Karah Ellis, Madi McCue, Susan Fanizani, Ciera Yergeau, Kristin Zellars and Jessica Pitts (front)

Letting go of these digital devices was hard, but in the end, the practice helped participants focus on what’s truly important in their lives. They learned the true meaning of solidarity.

“Without the distraction, we were able to get to know each other on a more meaningful level,” said Jessica Pitts, a senior. She said most memorable for her was the deep conversations she had with peers from other colleges.

In addition to other farm chores, Pitts, a Sullivan native who now lives in Terre Haute, said she benefitted from a visit to a homeless shelter and from helping provide snacks to kids through the local backpack program.

It was an experience that she won’t soon forget. “On a personal level, this made me feel thankful that I had the ability to help,” Pitts said. But she was also thankful for the spiritual growth and new perspectives she encountered, she said.

For Ellis, a first-timer to such a service trip, it was a “powerful experience.” With the elimination of digital distraction and a clear focus on God and others, she discovered how God is working in her life. “I just found out a lot about myself and about the world,” she said, “God is truly in the center of it all.”

From this fall break experience, these budding individuals gained valuable lessons for everyday life. “I noticed growth in each of the students: growth in love, growth in acceptance, growth in friendships and growth in understanding of Catholic Social Teaching,” Beyke said.

‘The foundation of everything we did was grounded in the Church’s social teaching of dignity of the individual.

“Each person has an inherent dignity given by birth, and that is a principle that can be applied at any place, any time.”

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