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Students work, pray, and love during service-learning retreat in Appalachia

Students work, pray, and love during service-learning retreat in Appalachia

During a six-day service immersion retreat, 12 seniors visited eastern Tennessee to serve the rural poor and build a community both among themselves and with the people in the Appalachian Mountains.

This marks the 41st year that McNicholas has traveled to areas in Appalachia in conjunction with Glenmary Home Missioners, a Catholic organization dedicated to serving the poor and establishing a Catholic presence in rural areas of the United States.

Glenmary has helped to establish over 120 parishes in counties where less than 1% of the population is Catholic and as high as 75% of residents claim no faith affiliation at all. Poverty in these counties averages 20%, almost two times the national average.

Retreat leader and Director of Mission & Ministry, Jeff Hutchinson-Smyth, said, “It was so powerful to be back at Joppa Mountain and to introduce our young people to the amazing work of Glenmary. It is a joy and a privilege to help them to witness the face of our Church in a context that's very different from what many McNick students experience daily, even though we're only two states away.”

The Glenmary house is stationed on Joppa Mountain where managers live and work with volunteer groups. During their week on “Toppa Joppa,” Rockets worked hard, chopping and delivering firewood to neighbors in need; cleaning and landscaping at the two mission parishes in Grainger and Union counties; painting, power-washing, and playing with children at Kingswood Children’s Home; maintaining trails and prayer spaces at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center; and completing various renovation and maintenance tasks for community members.    

Senior Bella Mastruserio felt a unique sense of joy and peace in actively serving the community. She said, “Encouraging one another while working on the more difficult tasks, doing a small chore around the house when no one else is looking, and getting to know the members of the community we had the opportunity to serve were just a few ways that I saw this group bonded together during this special time in our lives."

Students also observed just how deeply religious faith is reflected in the lives of the people in the community. The group worshiped and shared pot-luck at St. John Paul II, connected with an interfaith Bible study group, and were welcomed at Washburn Baptist church.

“It was especially powerful for me to witness key moments during which the seniors present took a genuine ownership of their faith,” Mr. Hutchinson-Smyth said. “Being with those 12 seniors helped to renew my sense of hope for what is to come in our school and in our Church.”

This retreat experience was first offered to McNicholas seniors in 1981 by now-retired theology teacher Mr. John Norman. Kay Clear Jabin '82, mother of senior Maria Jabin, was on the first Appalachian Retreat to the Glenmary Farm in Vanceburg, Kentucky. Retreatants Julia Hart, Maggie Evans, and Augie Block all have siblings who were impacted by the retreat over the years.

Mrs. Jabin said, “I have very fond memories of my trip back in 1981…I think many of us were humbled by the resilience of the families we met and how content they were despite their poverty. It was also an opportunity to spend time with classmates that I didn’t know very well and to see a side to them that wasn’t always visible during school hours.”

Maria, who followed in her mother's footsteps, was impacted by disparity in wealth in the area and the joy she found in the ministry of presence. “Some people choose to live simply but others weren’t given the choice,” she said. “I learned that physical work is important but spending time with someone and getting to know them is more important.”

Bella left the mountain with a profound sense of calm and connection with her surroundings. “This time served as a great reminder that true fulfillment only comes with disconnection from the fast-paced environment of everyday life, and instead allowing yourself to reconnect with nature and build genuine human connection,” Bella said. “After being back home for a little over a week, I now see the moments in life where it’s important to slow down and find the space to feel deep gratitude for your surroundings.”

Mr. Hutchison-Smyth is grateful for the opportunity to lead students on such a powerful faith experience. “This retreat epitomizes the commitment to compassionate leadership that our students come to embrace over the course of their time at McNick. Spending a week with grounded, salt-of-the-earth people who wake up each day and put their faith and their love into action in humble, yet powerful, ways is inspiring to me.”

Bella added, “I have felt the light of Christ in the love from my classmates who went with me on this retreat, who I know will continue to spread that love and joy that comes from serving one another with the rest of the McNick community."

Students gather at sign outside of St. John Paul II Catholic Mission.

"One of my biggest takeaways from the Appalachia Retreat was my newfound appreciation for the community and space that I have grown up in. In Grainger County, Catholics make up less than one  percent of the population. This is vastly different than the community I have grown up in and getting to experience that in a new place was very eye-opening for me and made me much more appreciative." –Danielle Dietz ‘22

Students build ramp for a community member in need.
Student reflects while watching sunrise.

"The experience that was most impactful to me was cleaning up Terry's yard. I enjoyed the work, but more importantly, I liked talking to and spending time with Terry. I will always remember the kindhearted people that we met along the way, and the countless good deeds of service that we did." -Jason Kaldmo ‘22

Group photo at Inspiration Point.
Students cook and serve dinner.

"I was especially impacted by visiting the children at Kingswood. Sometimes I complain about not getting what I want and not being grateful for what I have. Hearing some of their stories was very eye-opening for me and I’m now very appreciative for what I have." –Shelby Highfield ‘22

Students smile and put arms around each other while serving others.
Group photo at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center

"I would encourage other students to take advantage of this really amazing experience to see a different place in the US and to learn that the others may have a different living experience, but at heart they are no different than me and my peers." –Andy Edwards ‘22

Group photo after Mass in front of John Paul II Mission Parish