GROTON -- Hamlin is a small town in rural Lincoln County, West Virginia, which is ranked as the poorest county in the United States.
Twenty teens from the Union Congregational Church in Groton, along with several adults from the church, spent a week in Hamlin to make a difference.
The group of 24, 20 of whom were student-volunteers from the parish, spent a week working side-by-side with other volunteers and the townspeople themselves, doing home repair, maintenance and painting, and running a Vacation Bible School for youngsters ages 5-14.
The trip was coordinated through Youthworks, Inc., a volunteer agency that runs similar programs throughout needy areas in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. Simply stated, the goal of Youthworks, Inc. is to "connect teenagers to God, each other and communities through life-changing Christ-centered mission trips."
Some of the students from the Groton group as well two of their adult coordinators met as a group recently to discuss the experience and how it has affected their lives. Rev. Gail Miller, Pastor at UCC, and Pete Hnath also shared their experiences.
Leah Pezanowski and Danika Manalo were both assigned to help run the Vacation Bible School.
"West Virginia is very nice. The town (of Hamlin) itself was run down. The houses were old looking and very small," said Leah.
Danika explained that the VBS had a very active agenda, with student volunteers setting up for the day and offering skits, songs, arts and crafts, reading, games, and "Scripture of the week," the theme of which was incorporated in all the activities.
"The kids we worked with were not at all shy, and a lot of them came from families that weren't together," Danika said, adding that, "some of the stories we heard were horrifying."
Both Danika and Leah said that the children they taught were happy, talkative and quick to bond with their youth leaders. The two agreed that the children were "beautiful and happy, but in great poverty."
Abby Pezanowski, who worked on the home repair, maintenance and painting crew, said that although Hamlin has a town center, "it seemed pretty much abandoned. There were a couple of stores, but not a lot of people. It almost felt ghostly."
Although they didn't meet many residents in the center of town, the teens got to talk, and in some cases work side by side, with residents whose homes and property they were working on.
Abby and Maddy Eggimann recalled painting the house of an elder town resident named Alverda. She enjoyed sitting out and talking with the youth crew as they scraped and painted her home, and was very happy with the way her house looked after being freshly painted.
The student volunteers observed that many residents, although they could not afford to maintain their houses, took great pride in the care they put into their lawns and plants. Although their lives are very hard, the students could tell that the people of Hamlin are a proud community.
Izzy Smith and Nikki Eggimann went to the trailer home of an elderly couple whose outdoor deck was caving in. Together with the other volunteers in their group, they cleared off, demolished and rebuilt a new deck for the couple, who were very excited as they watched the new structure take shape over the four days the crew worked to build it.
Olivia Temple, a member of the UCC Groton group, received special recognition from the entire team for her clean-up efforts under one family's outdoor shed. She squeezed into the small opening below the building and didn't stop working until she had cleared out all the debris and garbage that had accumulated there.
"It was hard work," she said. "We also cleaned up the outdoor bathroom at the elementary school."
The community of Hamlin shared some of its traditions with the students. One of the town elders, Miss Lottie, hosted the students at her "holler," which is a hollowed-out valley, where they sat and enjoyed her tales of town history and recollections about the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.
The student volunteers were also invited to a night of clogging. The Lincoln County Cloggers performed, and then invited their guests to join in "The Chicken Dance," and some partner and group dances. Although they were hesitant at first, the students had a great time learning this traditional form of entertainment.
Adult participant Pete Hnath explained that the days were very demanding on the student volunteers. In addition to their 30-hour van trip to Virginia, the days ran from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
"Everyone worked very hard, " Pete added.
Pastor Gail Miller talked about one resident who dreamed of one day converting his home into a local bed and breakfast.
"Everyone there has dreams, " said Olivia.
"Sometimes, " added Izzy, "the smallest thing you can do goes the farthest."
Students from the Groton UCC who participated in this trip included Olivia temple, Nikki Eggimann, Leah Pezanowski, Maddy Eggimann, Danika Manalo, Abby Pezanowski, Izzy Smith, Sammi Smith, Gordon Platt, Alexander Platt, Dillon Eberhart, Jack O'Neill, Mitchell Townsend, Sean Preston, Kathryn Preston, Will Premru, Michaela Estes, Jenna Plausse, Meghan Hanigan and TJ Fetterhoff. Adults accompanying them were Rev. Gail Miller, Pete Hnath, Halsey Platt and Stefanie Lempp.