Spring Break Means Work, and Not on a Tan


Five wires overload an extension cord in the dingy, drafty kitchen. Cracks and holes gape in the bedroom ceiling where the roof lets in icy rain. The windows look out on a rocky hollow blighted by hundreds of car carcasses, upended and rusting.

But at the center of this bleakness, Danny King is home, the only home the 32-year-old mentally disabled man has known. And today his home is filled with nine strangers who are slowly becoming friends as they hammer, saw, spackle and paint.

"I call it a miracle, that's what I call it," King says.

They're college students--from as far away as South Dakota--who decided to spend spring break getting a new perspective, not a tan. Rather than beer, they're soaking up Appalachian culture in hardscrabble places where life is anything but a beach.

"I've done the Florida thing," says one of the students, Laura Apolito of Centerville, Ohio.

A freshman at the College of Mt. St. Joseph in Cincinnati, she is one of 350 students from 40 colleges who volunteered for a spring break "Workfest" sponsored by the Christian Appalachian Project, based in Lancaster, Ky.

With her, leveling the crosspiece of a new back door frame, medical student Joe Vogel from University of South Dakota jokes that he came to Kentucky for the warm weather; the temperature is in the 40s, sunny but with a sharp wind that makes cheeks ruddy.

"It's really a reality check," Vogel says more seriously. On campus, he explains, "I'm in my own little world--but everybody's neighbors, state to state. Everybody's got problems."

Getting to know the poor in Appalachia will help "keep my goals focused," he says, noting that he hopes to practice pediatrics or family medicine in a rural place. He spent last spring break in the Mississippi Delta.

Of course, everyone is not picking up a toolbox instead of a beach towel. Half a million college students were headed for Daytona this spring break, and rival Panama City Beach expected up to 650,000, according to the Florida Division of Alcohol and Tobacco.

Nonetheless, President Clinton's call to service was old news for many college students.

"I think the stereotypical student going down to Florida is not the prevailing thing that's going on these days," says Bil Boozer, a board member of the U.S. Student Assn. "A lot of people are interested in social issues. There's more of an awareness."

Last year, Edward Eberle of Marquette University in Milwaukee worked with the homeless in Washington, D.C. This year he, like the rest of the Workfest volunteers, paid his way to Kentucky.

"In college, you're worried about grades, does this girl like me, or something," Eberle says, looking up from his saw. "You come down here and see people who have real problems. I don't have to use an outhouse."

Some of the students had never seen an outhouse before, but it was the first thing they built at King's house. An old outhouse had simply "fallen down," King says. Living alone since his mother's recent death, he often wondered if his whole house might collapse too.

Rain "poured down" through leaks, floorboards broke, and water he drew from his back-yard well--his only source--sometimes froze overnight in buckets in the kitchen.

"I was kind of worried," King says as he fills plaster cracks with putty, a skill the students had taught him.

Larry Creech, a carpenter working for the Christian Appalachian Project, is in charge of the student crew, assigning them jobs, making sure no one gets hurt. "You get some kids from college, they don't know one end of a hammer from the other," he says, laughing.

"They've worked hard," he says. "Maybe it's enough to preserve it for another 10, 15 years."

At another site, homeowner Barbara Isaacs says that's how long it would have taken her family to afford the work that another crew of students is doing in a week. She's a waitress and her husband works, but with two children, house fix-ups come very slowly.

Gray, worn tar paper is being covered with wood siding, painted a handsome shade of light green, and new porch railings are being added. So is a material called "underpinning," intended to stop drafts around the bottom of the house, which is set on a slope.

"It doesn't even look like the same house," Isaacs says, adding that she's grown attached to the students. "I told them I wanted to get a picture of all of them before they left."

At the end of a day that started with breakfast at 7 a.m., students pile out of a van at the CAP camp where they live and eat during their stay. Few speak. Their faces are long, their backs slumped with fatigue.

Dinner restores them, however, and most turn out for the evening program: a talk by Appalachian scholar Jim Wayne Miller, who uses poems, folk tales and snippets of scholarly studies to make a point about the mountainous region known for its coal, its music and its hard times.

"More is known about what's under the ground than what's on top of the ground, the people," Miller says.

Students pepper him with questions, some reflecting a frustration with the generation-to-generation poverty they are meeting face to face. Why don't teachers do more to steer children to college? Are Appalachian parents overprotective, keeping their adult children with them too long?

After the lecture, many heavy-lidded students head off to bed, though it is only 9:30. A few couples walk hand in hand down the camp's long gravel road under the cold, starry sky. Others gather their folding chairs into circles for intense discussion groups.

As one group debates, someone peruses the latest handwritten additions to a wall poster marked "Appalachian Memories," which was blank three days before when the students arrived. It is crowded now.

"A friend is a gift you give yourself."--Tanya.

"I want my mom"--Tony.

And this from someone named Vicky: "My wrist is ACHING!"

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