– The Beatles, ‘Two of Us’
APEX has just recently come to an end. After spending my spring break doing service work in Hazard, Kentucky, I set foot once again on St. Joe’s campus this past Saturday evening. I was exhausted (I still am) after getting around a collective 20 hours of sleep during the weeklong trip. My muscles were sore from tearing up boards, hammering nails, swinging a sledgehammer, and crawling under a house to fix leaky pipes. I spent my break physically drained, hyped up on coffee and sugary cereal.
And it was one of the best weeks, if not the best week, of my entire life thus far.
In my previous post, I talked about my mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement before heading down to Hazard to partake in the Appalachian Experience. Before going on APEX, I was fearful of the unknown, afraid that I would isolate myself from the 34 other individuals in my group and withdraw from the experience as a whole.
But if there’s one thing that being stuck inside 12-passenger vans driving to and throughout Kentucky for hours upon hours does, it certainly helps you bond. As soon as we loaded our bags and ourselves into the vans after the customary APEX sendoff mass last Friday night, my anxieties began to wear away, leaving nothing but my excitement. On the way, the ten of us in my van played ice breakers and blasted our guilty pleasure jams. We sang, ate snacks, and got lost a few times (but I prefer to think of those mishaps as simply extensions of our bonding time!)
By the time we’d actually made it to Hazard, I felt fairly certain that this was going to be a really good thing for me. I just didn’t realize how good it could actually be.
On Sunday, we attended mass in a local church filled with some of the kindest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. The energy within that church was so strong, so profound and loving, that I actually burst into tears near the end of the service thinking about my blessings (this was the first of many very cleansing breakdowns I had whilst on APEX.)
Later, we took a hike through Buckhorn Lake State Park, a beautifully expansive stretch of land that provided muddy paths and gorgeous views. We trekked over two trails, through streams and crunchy leaves, helping each other the whole way.
From Monday through Thursday, we woke up early in the morning and worked all day in small groups on a few different work sites, all through the Housing Development Alliance of Hazard. My group was assigned to tear out a water-damaged porch and rebuild it with treated wood. We worked alongside a carpenter named Matt, who is hands down the bravest and most dedicated man I’ve ever met. I was, and still am, in awe of the stories Matt told us; he’s endured countless injuries, one worse than the next, some terribly life-threatening. But through all of these painful ordeals, he toiled and labored, moving forward without complaint.
I, on the other hand, whine about getting a paper cut. Right there and then, my perspective completely changed.
Completing the work itself was extremely rewarding. In only four days, my hands became calloused, bruises formed on my knees, and my muscles ached from their constant strain. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a carpenter and imagined doing this kind of work on a daily basis, which gave me a newfound respect for those who can do manual labor day in and day out. Standing before the finished product – a completely renovated and secure front porch – after only a few days of building was so very gratifying. It took a lot of guidance and patience from Matt, but after hammering in nails and removing nails and hammering those same nails back in a second time (and a third time… and maybe even a fourth time…) we accomplished what we had set out to do. Together. We all played important parts, and saw firsthand the true meanings of teamwork and cooperation.
My group also received the task of crawling underneath a house that had been flooded by a pipe that had burst. I jumped at the chance to do something I had never done before, so I willingly wriggled right in; however, I also jumped upon coming face-to-face with a huge spider right near the entrance I had just crawled through, and for a minute I considered bolting out of there as fast as my hands and knees would take me.
Soon enough, though, I calmed down thanks to my friends coaxing me onward and assuring me that spiders didn’t exist down there. By the end of the day, I was crawling in the darkness through water and dirt near the opposite side of the house, far from the entrance where I’d almost cried beforehand.
One thing that is now profoundly ingrained in my being is the importance of friendship, trust, and communication. Having grown up an only child with an independent nature, I am very much a loner and probably always will be; nonetheless, APEX essentially forced me to depend on others, something I’ve never been quite comfortable doing. Whether it was while working, building, crawling underneath houses, preparing meals, cleaning, reflecting on our personal lives, or even sharing stories and jokes while riding in the van, the essence of the group was always the centripetal force that bonded us as something greater than lone individuals.
We came to recognize that we are all unique, with our own particular talents, traits, quirks, and backgrounds. APEX helped us celebrate our distinct qualities while bringing us together to help the community.
At the end of the day, we weren’t defined by the stereotypes by which we are sometimes categorized in everyday life. We were just people working alongside people, friends living alongside friends.
I think it’s safe to say that Hazard is a place I will never forget. It was as welcoming and warm as any home could be, despite the often cool and rainy Appalachian air.
And my APEX group truly is another family to me. Together, we’ve shared our passions, our struggles, our innermost thoughts, our smiles, ourselves. What we lacked in sleep, we made up in memorable late-night conversations. We were physically tired, yet spiritually rejuvenated.
We may have looked grimy and probably smelled pretty gross, but we saw each other on a deeper level than our bodily forms. We saw vulnerable human beings. We saw beautiful souls, open hearts, and true emotions in everyone’s eyes.
We saw God in each other, and that is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.