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Appalachian Experience A Meaningful Spring Break

March 26, 2011 by Josh Morgan

To many, college spring break means warm exotic resorts and carefree fun-in-the-sun. To others, it means a week of volunteering to help those who are less fortunate.
This year, through Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, two Cheshire residents decided to skip the vacation and, instead, spend their spring break in rural areas along the Appalachian mountain range. The poverty-ridden areas in Kentucky and West Virginia are chosen by local organizations and Saint Joe’s students aid in their efforts for the week in March. Now in its 18th year, the Appalachian Experience has grown from a few students to nearly 500 from the University. The students visited 15 sites in four different states and were broken into random teams that mixed genders, interests, and class years.
“The Appalachian region really needs help. They don’t have the people or the resources to do the work,” explained Tara Aitro, a junior at Saint Joe’s. “It’s really sad to see. Houses are falling apart, some are missing roofs. They don’t have much.”
Aitro and fellow Cheshire High School graduate Brynna Rao took part in the 2011 Appalachian Experience, but they were assigned different sites for their spring break. Aitro was in Leon, Kentucky, where she did work similar to that seen on Habitat For Humanity builds. Rao, a freshmen at Saint Joe’s, spent her week in Jacksonburg, W.Va., cleaning up debris and volunteering at soup kitchens. This was the second time Aitro took part in the Appalachian Experience, and both times she was in different cities in Kentucky.
“It is a great experience. You grow so close to your group. You’re 40 strangers on the first day and by the end, you’re like a family,” Aitro stated. “You form a bond with them and that’s one of the best parts of the trip.”
Aitro explained that the Southern mentality lends itself to a lot of pride, and some of the families they were trying to help didn’t want to accept their charity. However, conversing with the residents and volunteers, Aitro said everyone eventually fits in and gets the job done. One of the first projects in which she took part was paving the foundation for a whole home and framing the first floor of another.
“It really sped up the process,” she said the crew foreman told her. “What we did in one day usually takes them a week since they don’t have a lot of help.”
She also painted, put on siding, and installed some insulation in another house, all in a week’s time. She said the nine-hour work days were long and she never really knew what the next day would bring, but that’s part of why it’s a “really great” trip.
“I think I’d have regrets if I never did Appalachian,” Aitro said. “I had a hard time finding my place here freshman year and, after this trip, so many doors opened up. I made so many friends and that bond is unbelievable.”
Rao said she heard about the Appalachian Experience for the first time during freshman orientation at school last year. Students around campus also talked about the volunteer trip and it came “highly recommended” from everyone.
“I felt that it couldn’t be passed up,” she said. “The experience for me wasn’t so much about what we were doing, but who we met that made it so special.”
In West Virginia, Rao and a group of around 30 students worked in local soup kitchens and spent time helping out at the Salvation Army. They also did work with their local government and helped rescue items, such as a piano, from rising flood waters. The flooding also forced the group to pack up and move to another, safer, location. Talking to the residents, Rao said she “learned a lot” about life.
“I learned from them and heard their perspective on life and their economic situation,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect, but it was a great experience.”
Rao said she plans on doing the Appalachian Experience for her four years at Saint Joe’s, and is even changing her plans to study abroad so she doesn’t miss it in 2012.
Aitro said being on the trip gave her an appreciation of “what we have and what we should be thankful for.” She also felt the experience let her “reflect on life” and helped her grow as a person.
“People talked about going to Cancun or going abroad, but that never occurred to me. I think they are the ones who are missing out,” Aitro said. “There is always time to take a vacation and I don’t need to now. I’ve gained a lot in what I’ve done.”

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