There are lots of amazing ways to spend your summer vacation: at the beach, at a ballgame or concert, or just lounging in a park. I spent mine on top of a hot tin roof in a beautiful place called Jonesville, Va. (population 1,034). Working on a tin roof in the blazing sun during the summer gives new meaning to the phrase “toasted buns.” I have never, ever sweat that much in my life. And I loved every minute.
This was my sixth summer “vacation” to Appalachia since 1995, and every single one has been incredibly rewarding. Giving back whatever I can to people who have very little and who are far less fortunate than I (average income in Jonesville is $22,000/year, and many live on considerably less than that) is a gift to me as much as to those I’m helping. Remarkably, these humble people with so little are in many ways far happier than we who live here in the land of plenty.
I was down there this year with 87 adults and high school kids from Bound Brook Presbyterian Church in early July for 10 days to help rebuild homes under the auspices of Appalachia Service Project (ASP). Their motto is “making homes, safer, warmer, drier.” Because I am only moderately handy with tools, rebuilding that porch roof took a real team effort.
There were six of us (two adults, one college student, and three high school youths) working for a 47-year-old woman named Mary and her family. Though uneducated and riddled with cancer, Mary displayed intelligence, insight and strength that is rare in anyone. In many ways, she was smarter than we’ll ever be. Her “sermons” on self-reliance, courage and the ability to get up off the floor when all seems hopeless were priceless. And the story she told of “spiritually” climbing the mountain outside her home, symbolizing her 7-year struggle with cancer, was every bit as moving as any PSA you’ve ever heard. And way more real. There wasn’t a dry eye to be had.
It’s moments like these — and the satisfaction of having built something lasting — that make giving back some of my time so easy. Totally unplugged from the hustle of New York (no email, no TV, a few short phone calls home), you realize that the people you surround yourself with are what really count. And that family and friends, and the idea of a shared mankind, are the building blocks of what a truly successful life is all about.
I can’t wait to go back again next year.