Diary of a first-time PLIA leader

Ben Boersma – Staff Writer

 

PLIA Ben PC-jena schouten

Photo by Jena Schouten

Day 1:
We spent Friday and Saturday on the road and made it to Inez, Kentucky. Both churches we went to on Sunday had members who lost loved ones, and the pastors were willing to speak to their situations instead of sticking to their sermons. A lot of us were very surprised at how open the people were with each other.

 

We worked with an organization called Appalachia Reach Out (ARO). They have a thrift store, food pantry and living space for the teams they bring in each year. They’re planning on adding space for an addiction recovery center on the campus as well. Dwayne Mills is the new executive director of ARO. He took over near the end of last year.

Inez is the seat of Martin County, Kentucky. It’s in one of the poorest counties in the United States—a center of the recent opioid crisis. A couple miles west of ARO, President Lyndon Johnson once stood on the porch of a nearby house and declared his “war on poverty.” It’s been 50 years since then, but not much has changed. Most of these people have been on government support since the coal mines shut down several years ago. The main sources of income are the school districts and the federal prison.

Day 2:
We did a lot of cleanup jobs around ARO. We spent most of the morning at the thrift store, cleaning and sorting supplies, some light landscaping and stuff like that.

Mills had to leave due to the passing of his in-laws, so Bill and Jana Zuidema helped us get started. They took us into Inez for ice cream that evening. About half of us tried the specialty: fried Oreo sundae.

Day 3:
Everyone worked in the thrift store, sorting out seasonal products to make room for summer stuff. We finished cleaning out the garage in the afternoon.

In the evening, we helped serve dinner at the Baptist church and then went to their service for recovering addicts. That was an eye-opener: all these people struggling with addictions and all of us with vices of our own, and we’re all at varying stages of recovery.

Day 4:
We tutored in the local elementary schools in the morning. I was glad we had three education majors on the team, because those kids almost wore me out. Thoe kids really wanted to learn, but the education system is keeping them from doing as well as they could. There just aren’t enough teachers or people to invest in these kids’ lives outside the classroom.

That afternoon we helped out at a church youth group. Nine-square, basketball, and dodgeball were the popular games.

We burned some of the wood we’d collected earlier that week and joined together in prayer and song for the people on the team, as well as for the people of Inez. By the time we all made it to bed, it was three in the morning.

Day 5:
Thursday was our last day. Emotions still ran a little high, but overall, everyone appeared pretty joyful. We tutored in the schools again: half in the elementary school, half in the middle school.

That afternoon, we joined the rest of the team and tutored in the high school. We had everything from history to algebra. Each of us chose our college specialty.

That evening, we went to a nearby country music museum and listened to live bluegrass music. Some that spoke of the hard times these people have experienced, some that shared the hope found in Christ. Those of us who knew how to dance joined some of the locals and the other youth groups for some of the songs.

Mills met us back at ARO that evening and debriefed us. The education majors seemed excited at the teaching opportunities, but also annoyed at an education system that teaches for standards rather than caring about the students. One of our teammates said she was considering coming back to Inez to teach.

We’ve grown close as a team over the week. We laughed, cried, sang, prayed and even danced together—sometimes all in the span of 30 minutes. We shared insights into what God’s love should look like — how, in spite of the hopelessness we saw, no one is outside the reach of God.

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