Herald and Journal, July 31, 2000

Holy Trinity High School students stay side by side

By Jane Otto

When 14 Holy Trinity High School students and their six chaperones boarded two vans for the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia June 30, they left just wanting to help, but returned with a stronger sense of community and of one another.

The group traveled to the small town of Keystone, W. Va. There, they met with another group from Towne Boulevard Church of Ohio, and for one week, together, helped repair and paint some homes in the community and interacted with the area youth.

Trinity's religion teacher, Marie Molva, and pastor, the Rev. Paul Wolf, arranged the mission trip through Youth Works, a group based in Minneapolis.

It was a week that would leave its mark.

Clutching photographs and a heart full of memories, students Chris Johnson, Katie Kielkucki, Melissa Williams, and Ryan Gueningsman, and chaperone Lavon Kielkucki shared their experiences.

"I got to know these people on a totally different level," said Chris.

Going to school together is one thing. It's a different ball game when, side by side, you travel over 1,300 miles, work, pray, plan and make meals, and sleep elbow to elbow on the floor of an abandoned school house.

In such constant close quarters, you can only grow to know one another.

"I enjoyed seeing the changes in the kids and in their relationship with Christ," said Lavon.

They also saw changes in the preconceived notions they had had about the region.

"I expected to find grungy people, dirty kids running around in diapers, and run-down homes. But that wasn't true at all," said Chris.

What she found was a town struggling to cope.

Lavon said that the area suffered tremendously when the coal mines closed some years ago and was impacted even more with the closing of its bank about five years ago. Jobs are scarce, she said.

Katie was amazed at how close the towns were to one another.

"A blink of an eye and you'd be in the next town," Katie said.

She said even though the towns were small, they had more shops than Winsted. However, she said, they weren't incorporated towns and had no city councils.

What the group also found was a welcoming community.

"The people were a lot more receptive to us then we expected," Lavon said.

They were grateful for the warm reception, since the Youth Works groups worked closely each day with the families and their children during the group's one-week stay.

Living quarters for that one-week stay were a far cry from that of a Hilton.

"We slept in sleeping bags on the floor of an abandoned school house," said Ryan. "You had to be careful of ants. I found that out when I left a bag of potato chips open one night."

There were other little inconveniences, ­ like one hair dryer and curling iron among all those girls.

"It wasn't that bad," said Melissa. "The only times we needed it was when we got dressed up and went to church."

Chris said she didn't think sleeping there was all that bad, but stepping over bodies to get to the bathroom during the night didn't particularly appeal to Lavon.

"Nothing against anyone, but it smelled like a boys' locker room by the end of the week," she laughed.

There wasn't much time to consider inconveniences as the days were full, beginning early and ending late. The days always began and ended with prayer and discussion.

"It wasn't just social services work; it was a retreat, too," said Lavon. "We didn't know that at first, but it was kind of nice."

Religion was often the topic at lunch, said Lavon. She said it was interesting discussing the differences between religions with the group from Ohio, who were not Roman Catholic.

Lavon related that one fellow in the group had lost his keys at the school.

"I'm praying to St. Anthony (the Catholic saint of the lost and the found)," Lavon told him. "I have connections."

She said that a little bit later, she accidentally tipped over a box and there were his keys. The other kids, she said, were so amazed that they asked her what other saints they had.

The groups' religions may not have been similar, but their work ethics were. The majority of daylight hours were spent scraping paint, mixing paint, and then applying it to the houses.

Both Katie and Chris said it was nice to get to know the families within those houses.

Chris said the father of the family in the house to which she was assigned, was so grateful for the work they were doing that he offered them everything and anything.

On the last day at the house where Katie was assigned, she said that the mother prepared a huge table of food for them in thanks.

Not all were involved in painting houses. Some students were assigned to "Kids Club."

Melissa said two mornings were spent planning activities and two visiting nursing homes. They also tutored kids in the afternoons.

"There was a lot of unrest in the children." said Lavon. "They tried a lot to get attention."

Lavon said one objective of Kids Club was to teach the kids that Christ loves them.

Playful pranks, though, were also part of the plan.

One afternoon, a Youth Works staffer had the kids fill coolers with water balloons, Ryan said. They visited the groups that were painting and offered them popsicles. When they took the kids up on their offer, the painters were doused with the balloons and plenty of laughter.

Katie said it was funny, and the water felt good on the hot day.

Of course, it wasn't all work and no play. The evenings were taken up with fun activities. There was hiking, and fireworks on the Fourth of July in Pocohontas, Va.

"The town reminded me of Waverly," said Katie. "A small town with huge fireworks."

And there was the community picnic in Keystone's city park. It was a special time for all, said Lavon. Everyone came and the children served the meal.

It was hard to leave at the week's end.

"I still miss everyone ­ the community spirit," said Lavon. "It just felt good."

"I didn't want to leave, but once we were on the road, I couldn't wait to get home," said Katie.

The trip to West Virginia had two stops, one night at Holy Trinity in Bloomington, Ill., and another at the University of Kentucky's Newman Center in Lexington, Ky.

But, it was non-stop on the drive back to Minnesota.

"Wisconsin never looked so good," laughed Lavon.

Now, back home and reminiscing, those feelings of community and friendships, both new and old, cannot be measured for this mission group from Holy Trinity.

Lavon said everyone was so thankful for all that Marie Molva did to organize the trip and give them the opportunity to have such an experience.

The group's enthusiasm has resulted in the forming of a Holy Trinity youth group, presently in the the infancy stage.

And is there a mission trip in the works for next year?

You betcha.

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