In just a few days of service work in Harlan, Kentucky, Kora Kornhaus learned an invaluable lesson: her volunteer work was as important as the gifts she opened herself up to receiving in return – whether good advice, hospitality, a meal, or a story.
Kornhaus and nine other Eastern Mennonite University students spent their fall break volunteering with Sharing with Appalachian People (SWAP) in Harlan, Kentucky. The trip was coordinated by Y-Serve (formerly YPCA), a student service organization. Club advisor and University Chaplain Brian Martin Burkholder also accompanied the group.
The trip was the first service work sophomore John Jantzen had contributed to while at EMU, but he had volunteered with projects at camp and convention, “as well as smaller things like helping with MCC canning or school kits.” He was grateful to take a break from his studies: the long weekend was “an opportunity to both relax from the stressors of college life, and take a step back and remember what is important in the real world.”
SWAP, a program of Mennonite Central Committee, works to address substandard housing in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The organization’s logo is a cross formed by a hammer and paintbrush. Volunteers come year-around to help make homes safe, warm and dry. The location has been the site of several past Y-Serve trips, which also happen during spring break.
Kornhaus, the organization’s secretary, drew her lesson from one experience during the weekend: helping a community member who collected aluminum cans as a source of income but had no way to get them to the recycling center. His basement was nearly “three-quarters full of cans,” said fellow volunteer and Y-Serve Co-president Isaac Sawin.
“After a lot of mind-numbing work, we were all feeling fairly exhausted, yet once the man came over and shared about the hardships he’s had to go through in his life and gave me a quick hug, I felt as though the work was worth it,” Kornhaus said.
The EMU group also fixed an exterior wall and installed siding at a home that SWAP had started to work on in the summer. “When completed, this project will allow the homeowner to have a safer, warmer, and dryer home,” said Stephanie Broersma, SWAP Harlan Location Coordinator. “It was a blessing to have students interacting with the homeowner who is an older woman who lives alone, and the homeowner offering them hospitality.”
The volunteers also helped to assemble pallets of food for a food pantry, install a playground at a school, and make sound absorbers for the SWAP gathering room.
Sophia Sherrill, Y-Serve co-president, said that the most rewarding part of the trip was seeing the “immediate, positive impact we were making with our work, and feeling like we were working alongside people rather than inserting ourselves into the situation. It felt good that we were wanted and appreciated there.”
A bonus was the “absolutely gorgeous views” on their daily three-mile trek from their campsite to the main road.
“I would encourage anyone that’s thinking about volunteering with SWAP to do it,” Sherrill said. “It is a wonderful organization with great people that are really making a difference in their communities.”
Broersma expressed gratitude for the EMU group. “It is a blessing to see young adults interested in serving others in the name of Christ, and we hope that they will continue to find ways to serve wherever they go.”