Yes, it’s better to give than to receive, but as participants in the Diocese of Bethlehem’s High School Mission Trip learned, that’s only part of the story. For them, it was through helping a family in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains that they received gifts beyond measure.
“It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life,” said 16-year-old Eden Stella, who went on the mission trip earlier this summer with nine other youths and four chaperones.
“It was great. I don’t even know how to put it into words. It was emotionally challenging, it was physically challenging, but it was so great to put aside your own personal life and needs for a whole week and help a family who really needs it.”
The diocese sponsors a high school mission trip every other year (middle school students do a trip on the off years). This year’s group spent June 28-July 5 at Grace House on the Mountain, a non-profit organization near St. Paul, Virginia, that is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia. Grace House seeks to be a place of social justice and advocacy for the welfare of the Appalachian people. Its projects help families in need of safe, warm and dry homes.
Steve Whiteley and his wife, Mary Ellen, were among the chaperones, as was the Rev. Doug Moyer, rector of Christ Church, Stroudsburg, where the Whiteleys head the church’s youth group. Two of the Whiteley’s three children—Sam, 17, and Tess, 14—also went on the trip.
Whiteley said that most members of the Christ Church youth group are too young for the high school mission trip, but he and Mary Ellen wanted to go experience it so they would know how to prepare for a future trip. It was the first time members of Christ Church had participated in a diocesan mission trip, Whiteley said. It won’t be the last.
“It really is beautiful there,” he said of Grace House. “It was started by Episcopal deaconesses as part of a series of missions in the Appalachian area in the early 1990s. This one is still functioning as a mission. There are three buildings: a girls’ dorm, a boys’ dorm and common house. There were five girls and my wife and five guys with three male chaperones. We’d have morning prayer in the morning and talk about what to expect for the day. We’d pack our tools , hop in our vans and drive out to a work site. We were given a number of options to work on. An emergency came up and there was a house that was in such bad repair that one of the kids was taken out because social services said it was too dangerous. That was the one we wanted to work on.”
Whiteley, who has several years’ experience as a carpenter, said the front porch had fallen off the house, leaving the five-member family with only one way in and out of the house, which led social services to remove from the house the youngest daughter, who is 17 years old. Anita and Jerry Boyd, directors of Grace House, wanted the house in good enough repair that the daughter could be returned to her family.
“We fixed the holes in the floor, repaired the walls,” Whiteley said. “The kids loved the work. They loved working outdoors. They got to use power tools. We [Whiteley and Jay Freeman, another chaperone] both have some carpentry experiences, but we tried to let the kids do it themselves.
“We put a deck on the front of the house because the front porch had completely fallen off. We built a deck and stairs. It was a mess. These people were really living in squalor. Their dad had been in the coal industry. They have three kids and none of them was working. They got their food from food pantries. It was very sad, but the family was wonderful. It was very rewarding.
“But it was a very sad situation,” Whiteley said. “Two of the children have learning disabilities, but they were happy and wonderful and worked right along with us. I think the kids really enjoyed meeting them.”
Interacting with the family had a huge impact on Stella, who is a member of the Diocesan Youth Council and is a youth group leader at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre.
“Every evening we would have dinner and then we’d go upstairs into a little group room where we’d have five to ten minutes of evening prayer,” Stella said. “Then we’d have a daily reflection and we’d talk about where we saw God in our experience. More often than not it was in the family. This family had so little—little food, little clothing, house falling down.
“It was so great to see that even though these people have so little, they have so much. They loved each other so much. It opens up your eyes, gives a new perspective on things,” Stella said. “We have all this fancy technology, and kids who get upset because their family buys the wrong cereal. This family is lucky if they get a box of cereal. You come home respecting things that you have, more than you did before you left.”
Stella was ecstatic when, before the mission trip ended, social services had allowed the 17-year-old daughter to return home.
“We were able to get enough done on the list to let her come home,” Stella said. “Child services let her visit while we were there, then one day she was there longer than normal. They told us she was home for good now. You just didn’t know how to feel; you wanted to cry, you wanted to jump up and down. The last day, when we were nailing down the floors, she was helping us nail the floors down.”
As a show of their appreciation, the family insisted on hosting a barbeque for the youth mission group. Using vegetables from their garden and food they receive monthly from a nearby food pantry, the family put on a feast.
“They were so grateful for all the work we were doing,” Stella said.
Whiteley found the family’s generosity “humbling.”
“One of the most amazing things was there was a church right beside this house which, from the outside, probably didn’t look too bad, and the congregants probably didn’t know how bad it was inside,” Whiteley said. “The Wednesday we were there, the church served more than 130 families at the food pantry, including the family in the house where we were working. The next day the family insisted on having a barbeque for us. Here were people who virtually had nothing, getting food from a food pantry. It was humbling. We were—at least I was—thinking that what we had given them was minor to what they had given us. It was amazing; the children were speechless.”
Whiteley said he and his wife both want to go on the next high school mission trip. So do his son and daughter.
“My kids definitely want to go back too. They bonded with kids all over the diocese. They had a great time. One of the girls who went, Lauren Todaro, sings and plays guitar. She’s an amazing guitarist. It was absolutely wonderful.”
Stella plans to go on the next mission trip and said she plans to make mission work a regular part of her life. She has demonstrated a passion for mission ministry. This was her first high school mission trip, but she attended the diocesan middle school mission trip in 2013, where the group participated in a variety of ministries, including working on an animal ranch, helping weed a community garden in Bethlehem, and helping out at a natural disaster relief center.
In lieu of a sermon one Sunday after the 2013 mission trip, Stella made a presentation about the trip to her congregation at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre. During a daily reflection during this year’s mission trip, Vanessa Casterline, one of Stella’s good friends, told the group that it was that presentation that made her want to attend this year’s trip.
Stella said she and Casterline act as leaders of their church youth group, which includes grades six through 12. Stella wants to grow the group.
“We have about seven youth involved; we’re kind of small at the moment,” Stella said. “We’re trying to get more people involved. We’ve reached out to Grace Episcopal Church in Kingston to try to get them to do things with us.”
Whiteley said he’d like to explore getting the youth involved in doing some mission work closer to home.
“It’s great that we drove eight hours to help these people, but there are probably people living in our own communities that we don’t know about,” Whiteley said. “How can we help this mission live in our own community? We don’t have to drive 500 miles to make a difference. We talked about potentially hooking up with Habitat for Humanity.”
Stay tuned for upcoming mission opportunities.