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Spring break service trip builds connections in rural West Virginia

Robyn Newcomb
Features Editor

From Saturday, March 10 to Friday, March 16, 28 members of the Wooster community — including students, faculty and hourly staff alike — spent six days in the small, rural town of Colcord, W. Va. for the ninth annual service trip to the community. With no phone service or Internet, Wooster participants stayed in a converted homeschool and worked on a variety of projects alongside Colcord community members throughout the snowy week.

Colcord is an unincorporated community of approximately 35 people in rural Raleigh County, W. Va. In addition to being heavily impoverished and reliant on the coal industry, the community was also severely impacted by the 2012 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in nearby Montcoal, which killed 29 people. “In a community that small, that impacts everyone,” said Eleanor Linafelt ’20, a participant on the trip. “They’re still feeling the repercussions of that.”

However, the continued support of outside volunteers has been a powerful agent of hope for Colcord.

“After nine years,” said Professor of Religious Studies Chuck Kammer, “we’ve made friends, we’ve made contacts, we’ve made relationships with the people there. By going back year after year, we have a continuity with them and a familiarity with the kind of work that needs to be done.”

The tasks that Wooster’s volunteers contributed to throughout the week ranged from broader projects, like building a wheelchair ramp for the church’s community meeting hall, to individual aid, like repairing locals’ homes.

“Diane is a really interesting woman,” said Sydney Fine ’18 of an older woman whose house she helped to repaint, “but health concerns occupy so much of her time and energy. Health care in Colcord is, well, nonexistent, really … She’s so sweet and compassionate and caring; she really cares about her community.”

Beyond the tangible work, Wooster’s participants came away understanding that the relationships they cultivated with Colcord’s residents and the understandings both communities gained of each other was “equally if not more important,” according to Linafelt.

“[The trip] opens my eyes up to people I wouldn’t normally interact with,” said Maha Rashid ’19, who has participated in the trip for multiple years. “I gain a deep appreciation for small acts of service because they are more meaningful sometimes than large acts of service. Sure, we can build a deck for people, and that’s cool, but sitting and talking to an individual about their story can mean so much more. Building relationships is an important part of service that I think is often forgotten.”

“What is really important to the people there, in some respects, is the relationships they build,” agreed Kammer. “You’ll go off to start a job and they’ll say ‘Well, this is what I need done, but wait, sit down — here’s some cookies; let’s chat a while.’”

Kammer added that the trip is typically comprised of a diverse group of both domestic and international students. Both groups, said Kammer, come to understand more about each other’s backgrounds and cultures every year.

The group of volunteers built relationships with each other, too. Through working on their projects, hiking together, cooking meals, playing music and having nightly reflections together, the group came to know each other in a unique and meaningful way.

“We’re all required to do some things we’d never done before — whether it’s running a power drill or cooking a meal for 28 people,” said Kammer.

“We talked, even on the trip, about how we were having this very particular and unusual and unexpected experience with each other and that we’d come back to Wooster knowing each other in a whole different way,” said Linafelt, who said that learning to use a circle saw from Dennis Miller, a Wooster Grounds employee on the trip, was a particularly memorable experience.

“I think everyone would agree that it changes the way you come back to campus,” said Linafelt.

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