Last month, 16-year-old Hoboken resident Hannah Valente met a family in West Virginia who live in a trailer on a creek, have no electricity, and are raising two autistic children.
Any one of those challenges might be a lot, but taken together, they surprised Hannah.
Hannah loves to hear people tell their stories. In the past, she had cooked food for the homeless at the Youth Service Opportunities Project, or YSOP, at the Quaker Meeting House east of Union Square in New York City. While there in December of 2012, she got the chance to hear a narrative that she had not encountered before: she heard about the lives of the city’s homeless, and how they got to be living in the shelter. This was a type of story she would want to keep returning to.
The Hoboken teen and several of her classmates at Loyola School, an independent high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, stayed one night with the homeless residents at YSOP last year. The trip was arranged through their school’s Christian Service Program, a community service requirement of all students that includes optional day-long and week-long trips. The experience was powerful, and Valente had to hear more.
Another opportunity came when Valente learned about the Christian Service Program’s spring break trips, where students can live among underserved populations while participating in service projects to improve conditions in those areas.
Valente was one of the first students to sign up for the school’s trip this March to Mount Hope, a small, struggling town in rural West Virginia. She was also one of the youngest – Loyola School’s juniors and seniors are usually the ones who take these longer trips, but Valente was eager to take it on and learn about rural poverty after her time with the urban poor close to home.
A journey into other lives
After a 14-hour drive from Manhattan down to Mount Hope, the students arrived at their temporary digs, some bunk beds set up at the local church, and reflected together on why they were there. Their Jesuit school puts emphasis on finding God in all things, Valente said, so this put a sense of purpose into the service trip for the students. The next morning the group of teens woke by 7 a.m., cooked breakfast together, and got to work building and repairing for the tiny town.
They built a handicap ramp, cleaned out a church lot, and insulated a trailer, according to the school’s publicist, Donald Tremblay. It was this last part that captivated Valente, because this was where she was able to connect with the people that she and her classmates were there to serve.
The family in the trailer lived a life entirely different from what Valente and her friends were used to – the parents and their two autistic children live isolated on a creek with no electricity – but their strength inspired her.
“It opened my eyes to how people live in the world,” she said.
Hands-on construction was the most challenging part for Valente; she had never before handled power tools, and she doubted her ability to build structures on her own. But when she was finally able to work a chainsaw and electric screwdriver to insulate the trailer, the home’s family was grateful.
“It was incredible to see what we helped build for them,” Valente said.
The students also had a “cultural immersion day” at a local high school in nearby Kentucky, where the differences between their lives and those of their Appalachian counterparts were most obvious. Two hundred students attend Loyola School; “here were 500 in a grade,” Valente said.
But the pace of life in these parts seemed to contradict that magnitude. The children and families moved slowly through their lives in rural Appalachia, while Valente is used to the rush of her two cities.
“Everything moves so fast” in New York and New Jersey, she says, where she rides a ferry over the Hudson River every day, then takes a subway up to school. The students she met did not have the resources that a big city can provide, but they “honestly are happier than the way we are here,” she said.
Now she divides her time between volunteer activities on both sides of the river. Valente wants to continue to engage with disabled people and the families that support them, starting closer to home. Inspired by the Mount Hope couple’s autistic children, Valente will volunteer this week with New Jersey’s Special Olympics through Hoboken’s St. Francis Church.
She wants to keep doing good, and she hopes to reconnect with the people she met in Appalachia. Loyola School recently announced that it will send students to West Virginia again next year, and Valente jumped at the opportunity: she has already reserved her spot.
Her parents are also pleased by her new construction skills, she says: “They want me to help build a summer house down on the shore now!”