Spotlight: Serving and learning in Appalachia

Author: Kate Bloomquist

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| Students combine service and learning at Appalachia seminar ||
p. When Notre Dame takes spring break March 7 to 13, some 200 students will renew a longstanding University tradition that has nothing to do with sand, surf or sun. Instead of relaxing on the beaches of Cabo, they’ll be working and learning in the hills of Appalachia.p. Since 1981, Notre Dame has sent an ever-increasing number of students to more than a dozen sites in Appalachia during both the fall and spring breaks to participate in what the University’s Center for Social Concerns calls service learning; that is, an exploration of religious, social, political and environmental issues in the impoverished region combined with work on home repair, clothing distribution, food bank and health care projects.p. The goal of the initiative—as it is with similar Center for Social Concerns programs in other regions—is to introduce students to the culture and social issues of Appalachia through direct interaction with its people.p. Carl Loesch, director of the center’s Appalachia Seminar and Educational Immersions, puts it this way: “Young people need witnesses, not teachers,” and he notes that the contact students have with community leaders can change their concepts of leadership.p. Notre Dame students who participated in the Appalachia project last fall worked and learned in a wide variety of settings and came back with new insights.p. Senior Kevin Sibbernsen, who traveled to a Catholic Worker farm site, put it this way: “We touched people in more ways than just building houses. We were building homes. We were holding hands, not just tools.”p. Kate Rumsey, a junior from Carrollton, Texas, and her group at the Charleston District Outreach Ministry in West Virginia got a true “overview” of the region on a plane ride over areas where coal companies had mined the mineral by blasting the tops off of mountains.p. “We were able to see what mountain-top removal did to the mountains and valleys,” she said. “It’s one thing to hear about it, but we actually saw the machinery and what it looked like.”p. Senior Wynne Morgan spent time in Kentucky at the David School, working with teenagers who have dropped out of high school.p. “I remember attending a soccer game that everyone thought they had no chance of winning, but they came together and tied the game,” Morgan said in recalling a moment that stood out for both her and the teens at the David School.p. Terry Fitzgibbons, a senior from Chalfont, Pa., has participated in the Appalachia Seminar three times. Last fall, at Nazareth Farm in Salem, W.Va., his focus was on home repair in an effort to reduce substandard housing. The cornerstones of “community, simplicity, prayer and service” guide the actions of Nazareth Farm staff members, who provide residents of the region with both physical and emotional support.p. “I was most surprised by the fact that Nazareth Farm was staffed with fresh college grads, and yet the program, and the week, were tight-knit and so solid,” said Fitzgibbons.p. Junior Alana Reyes-Mir has journeyed to both an Appalachia Seminar in 2002 and to Australia in Notre Dame’s study abroad program in fall 2003. Although she notes that these experiences had significant differences, she sees a connection in the education she received.p. “Both of them were about people—Notre Dame students who come together in places around the world to live, work and help out,” she said.p. Task force leader Michael Kelly, a senior from Jefferson City, Mo., noted that education and job skills are more important than ever in places like Appalachia. He added that “individuals, businesses, agencies and the government” all must work together “like legs of a table in the communities of Appalachia.”p. Students in all of the Center for Social Concerns service learning initiatives have assigned readings and attend orientation classes prior to spring break, and complete writing assignments upon their return.p. More information on spring break projects and the many other programs sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns is available on the Web at

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