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Johnny Hatten liked fixing up homes of families living in the Central Appalachia states last summer — in places like Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, to name a few. But the high school senior wondered how much impact he was really making. That changed on one particular day.
"I remember going to my worksite and there was this baby, and he had no clothes, nothing," recalled Hatten, who attends Christ The King Jesuit High School in Austin. "He was just crying, and I just wanted to do something. I felt like 'Oh, how am I fixing up a little part of the house doing anything?'
"Then one of the mothers from my worksite came in and she was crying because she was so happy the room was finally done," Hatten said. "Then I realized: because of this little thing that I'd done; now she can go and help someone else."
Hatten and other Christ the King students in July participated in the Appalachia Service Project, featuring volunteers from around the country repairing homes of low-income families in the rural, mountainous area. The students packed their bags and spent a week in Central Appalachia, including North Carolina and West Virginia.
Months after participating, the CTK teens couldn't say enough good things about participating.
"It was an amazing experience," CTK senior, Cardazure Selph, said. "My most difficult moment at ASP trip was going there and fixing up houses. I love helping other people out, but when I first got there, I thought, 'Oh, it's a lot of work to do and we only have a week to do it.' But thank God, we got through it."
The volunteers helped paint houses, repair roofs, hang drywall and fix floors. Volunteers must complete a written application in order to participate in the project. Once chosen, they work on fundraisers and participate in prep workshops throughout the year.
The faith-based program began in 1969, bringing teens and adults together to fix homes in Kentucky. The program has since expanded, bringing in more than 300,000 volunteers to repair 15,000 homes since its inception, according to the organization's website.
Based in Johnson City Tenn., the Appalachia Service Project runs year-round. The CTK students participated in its youth program for 14 to 18 year olds.
The teens were assigned to work with a family. At night, they stayed together in a community school classroom where they slept on airbeds and mattresses. But one evening, after noticing that the room was racially-divided, the students decided to do something about that.
"I took a stand because we had to share a room and I felt like we weren't really talking," Selph said. "I was in a room with people I didn't really know, and I wanted to get to know everybody so we can become friends. I suggested we play a name game and that got everybody talking."
CTK sophomore Amber Pollards had a similar experience.
"I was challenged in talking with my crewmembers because there were only two African-Americans in my crew. It was kind of hard fitting in with the Caucasians," she said. "I like talking to people, but these are people I had only seen at a couple of workshops. I kept thinking, I don't want to say the wrong thing and are my jokes appropriate?"
But there were lighter moments for the students.
Student Jazmine Sanders recalled the fun paint fights volunteers had. "With excess paint, the teens stuck their hands in the paint and painted each other," she said with a laugh.
CTK sophomore DeJada Daily went last summer while a freshman. Her most memorable moment was working with a volunteer named Fin.
"When this guy was on a ladder trying to fix the roof, and somehow he got stung in the eye by a bee. Can you imagine? He was dancing on the ladder, but he did not fall. Thank the Lord," she said.
Daily said her most challenging experience involved dealing with insects.
"I was running with tools in my hands. Thank God I didn't hurt myself," she said. "The bees are jumbo-sized. I had never seen a wasp in my life. We had 20-foot sprays for wasps. I got use to it after about three days."
Pollards, like the other students, said the experience in Appalachia changed her life.
"I'm very well off and I didn't realize that," she said. "I realized there are people who have it a lot worse than you have. Like in my family, if we need to have something fixed we can call a contractor. This made me realize and appreciate how blessed I was."
After helping fix up the mother's home, Hatten realized just how important his experience was.
"Appalachia really shaped my life because…I felt like I was the only person in the world," he said. "There's this whole big cycle; no matter how small the deed you do, it will be bigger in the long run."