Fostering community is a key part of SAGE’s mission, and Senior Food Service Director Colin Abernethy has found a unique way to bond with students, parents, faculty, and staff at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Maryland.
For five years, he’s helped organize a weeklong summer trip for students and chaperones to rebuild homes with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP). The group usually goes to West Virginia, which is where Colin is from, and he said he’d enjoyed getting to know Good Counsel community members outside the dining hall and teaching them about the history and culture of his home state.
Good Counsel’s involvement in ASP started because Tony Tamberino, who was the director of campus ministry at the time, wanted to offer an overnight service trip for younger students. He enlisted the help of Caitlin Atkins, a religion teacher at Good Counsel and former ASP staff member, and they started looking for other volunteers.
“Colin got involved from the very start,” Tony said. “Being a native West Virginian, he brought a lot of insight to the whole project. … He connects with the young people in a great way. The kids who are in his work crew the year before often want to be back with him again.”
Each ASP work crew has up to five students, along with two adults. The first summer Good Counsel participated, there were enough rising sophomores to fill three work crews. Once rising juniors and seniors were allowed to come and interest grew through experience and word of mouth, there were enough people for 12 work crews. There’s also been an opportunity for the past two senior classes to spend a long weekend with ASP during the fall.
“The kids who come as freshmen come back as senior leaders simply because of the camaraderie that they find on the trip,” Colin said. “They love getting to work with their hands. There aren’t shop classes in high school anymore. They’re getting to learn to use chop saws and circular saws and drill drivers and all types of stuff that they would never touch otherwise. They just absolutely love it.”
For the most part, Colin said, each work crew is assigned to one home for the week. The first day, the leaders of each crew meet with the ASP staff to learn about the repairs the home needs and make sure they’re comfortable with the level of work they’ll have to do, because not everyone has previous experience with home repairs.
“The kids who are most apprehensive at the start are the ones that wind up being the greatest construction crew members you’ve ever met in your life,” Colin said. “They can be timid. They can be gung-ho. You get a little mix of each. By the end of it, they’re all just super excited that they learned a new skill.”
Beyond the construction work, a week with ASP includes opportunities to get to know the families who live in the homes, learn about and explore the surrounding community, and make connections with fellow volunteers. Colin said activities had included singing songs, talking about the challenges that the county faces, getting dessert from a local ice cream parlor, playing in a dodgeball tournament, and reflecting on the week of service.
“They get to hear the stories of growing up in the mountains and making do with less,” Colin said. “We’re sending them out someplace where the average household income is below $25,000 a year. It’s a whole new world for them. They get to see the difference and get to understand how lucky they are to be in the situation they’re in.
“They say, ‘These people are in homes that are in poor condition, they’re in an area where there’s not much opportunity, but they are so happy.’ It’s a lesson that you don’t need all the money in the world to be happy. It’s a life-altering event for a lot of these kids.”
Tony said it’s important for students to get as much out of the experience as they put into it and to witness the determination, kindness, compassion, and hospitality of the Appalachian people they meet.
“They’re going to want to make a difference after they’re out of Good Counsel through college and into their adult life,” Tony said. “They’re going to think of service as a thing that should be part of their life all the way through.”
Tony praised Colin for his patience with the students, construction expertise, and leadership of the group while keeping up with his responsibilities as a SAGE Manager. Colin sets aside vacation time to be able to take these trips and gives direction to his SAGE team to make sure the dining program continues to run smoothly while he’s away.
“It certainly does take a lot of time to get it all hammered out, but it’s totally worth it in the end,” Colin said. “It’s awesome to help people in need and also help our students find something out about themselves and about the world around them that they might not see otherwise. It’s really about pulling them out of their bubbles. They go into this thinking ‘I’m going to go repair somebody’s house and change their life,’ but really what they’re doing is they’re going on a trip and changing their own lives and really kind of seeing the world with a fresh perspective.”