Big Creek People in Action, located in War, West Virginia, serves the citizens of McDowell County. They work to promote empowered and self-sufficient people and communities that are economically vibrant, democratic, and socially just. In the past thirty years the population of the county has declined by more than 50%. The predominant industry of coal mining has become mechanized greatly reducing the jobs available and decimating the service businesses that supported the community. Many of those who remain have health problems, are elderly, or are young people who are likely to leave the community after high school. In a community with seemingly overwhelming challenges, BCPIA provides a place of hope and for the community to come together, engage in addressing local issues, and develop innovative programs that help.
How do they provide hope and action to create more opportunities for the community?
They renovated an abandoned school building into a community center. This center is a symbol of community resilience and how they can turn limited resources into positive assets. They draw on the strength of their people to come together to help each other when times are tough. The BCPIA building served as a refuge for housing and food when the community experienced a devastating flood.
It now has become a place for volunteers to serve the community through a variety of programs
. One program centers on literacy – helping both youth and adults with reading skills.
Another major program is to engage colleges in service learning projects (see KLCC Bridge article below) in the community. They are housed at the BCPIA building and help with building and renovation projects to people’s homes. The community forms relationships with the volunteers and shares their culture and history through storytelling, music, dance, and potluck meals. This work not only results in home repair, but helps break the isolation of this small, rural community and build authentic relationships of mutual respect and caring between communities.
Creating collective leadership capacity. It would be understandable for this community to be overwhelmed by everyday life and to feel ill equipped to make changes. BCPIA has learned how to claim the rich assets of the people in this community - their generosity, resilience, compassion, tenacity, and deep hospitality – as gifts they can offer. They shifted from receiving help from outsiders to helping external volunteers remember their deepest humanity. In this, the people of West Virginia are master teachers.
June 2009, Volume VI, Issue 5, pages3-4
SERVICE LEARNING: BUILDING HOUSES, BUILDING CHARACTER
At first glance, the value that service learning provides can seem to flow in one direction only: from service provider to service recipient. But appearances can be deceiving. Examining service learning in the proper light, it becomes clear that the process has great potential to be enriching on both ends of the provider/recipient spectrum, with benefit flowing in two directions simultaneously.
Back in 2001, Marsha Timpson, KLCC host agency Big Creek People in Action’s learning coordinator, and a longtime leader in her local West Virginia community, launched a service learning program despite her reservations about whether balance could be found in such a program. “I struggled with it,” says Timpson, “I knew what we would gain from [service providers], but I did not see the [reciprocity] in the situation.” Today, Timpson’s view has changed, altered by her reading the reflections the program participants have prepared as part of their learning process. She has learned how much the young people gain from the experience. It has not always been that way.
When program participants first began arriving in the Big Creek community, they did not have the opportunity to learn much about the local community. At the time of the program’s inception, college-level student volunteers spent their time painting the community center or performing other maintenance tasks, and they left without having had any exposure to the mountain culture of this coal mining region of the country of which the residents are rightfully very proud. But thanks to the eye opening Timpson experienced upon reading the reflections the students wrote, she decided to incorporate a cultural dimension into the programming to share the unique heritage that defines West Virginia coal country. She worked to expand the scope of the program to encompass revitalization work on the homes of people in the community with the chance for volunteers to have personal and meaningful interactions with the residents of the area.
“These kids come here to work on people’s homes from the community, this is the way for them to give back,” says Timpson. While they are giving back, they also learn skills that many never imagined having. In one case, a group of students from Notre Dame was charged with building a home for a local woman in a week with just $1000. The student volunteers did not have the vision to imagine that such a thing was possible, but Timpson soon educated them to the possibilities. “I told them ‘we can do this.’ I had found someone who gave me a commode and sink, we built up the walls to separate the rooms, and someone else gave me a box of tile and two lamps for the living room. They surprised themselves at what they could do,” Timpson says. She insists, however, that the bricks and mortar of service learning are not as important as the cultural immersion. This, she feels, is what keeps the volunteers coming back over and over again throughout the school year from September to May. The demand for construction help is great with up to 500 applications taking place over the summer alone.
Because Timpson feels so deeply that the cultural aspects of the service learning experience are the most valuable, she organizes such events as an evening with bluegrass musician Chester Ball who plays for the young volunteers, and instruction in the local dance tradition called flatfooting. There is also an excursion she organizes to the Muncy Cabin on top of Slate Creek where 19 other mountain tops can be observed from this mountaintop vantage point. “They talk about it being a life-changing experience,” Timpson says. The youth volunteers step outside their own existence to travel to a place, both physically and emotionally, that they did not expect to find.
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