Building Houses, Building Community

Just minutes after the final exams, 51 students and faculty, including myself, embarked on a journey to Johns Island, South Carolina. We would call the island home for the next week, while volunteering for Rural Missions, a non-profit organization that supports low-income migrant workers and Sea Islanders. One of the groups of students and faculty waited out a three-hour delay while flying down to Charleston and did not arrive at Johns Island until 3 a.m. Unfortunately, they had to wake up at 7 a.m. the next day for church. But returners to Johns Island said that they would willingly sacrifice sleep to make it to the church service on time, which is often remembered as a highlight of the trip. Members of the Methodist church congregation have always become passionately involved in the service by singing and dancing. Students said they learned that the church is a focal point of everyday life in the faith-based Johns Island community. The students and faculty spent the next five days working at three different work sites. One site, the home of Mr. Washington, needed to be painted. Originally an architect from New York, Mr. Washington “got tired of partying” and went back home to South Carolina. However, he recently injured his knee and could no longer finish building, or painting, his house. The group that went to the Washington site painted both the outside and the inside of the house. The students also mended his porch and fixed his porch. With hard work, students finished the jobs at this site by Wednesday and then joined other student at various other sites. Julianna White’s house burned down after being struck by lightning during a terrible thunderstorm. Though they had a basic wood frame, the students had to start from scratch. Because of the vast amount of work to be done, students and faculty immediately started raising the trusses (roof supports), attaching hurricane ties and nailing in the plywood. At this site, the group met Mrs. White’s family, who came to visit every day to offer refreshments and a helping hand. Abraham, her grandson, loved working with the students. Students said he hammered alongside them or join their basketball games during downtime. The dilapidated state of Mr. Gibbs’ house was heart-wrenching, students said. Gibson, 91, couldn’t fix it himself, and over the years, it deteriorated. The floor caved in so much that he could not reach his own bathroom, his porch was falling apart, the siding on his house was rotten and the roof was leaking. Nicole Lee ’08 said, “I loved working on the houses – especially the Gibbs [house] because there was so much work to do. We had to do a range of things, from tiling the roof, painting the walls, siding the house, building a porch and stairs, to even crawling under the house to fixing the floor that was caving in. On the work sites, we all really bonded.” One tradition of the trip is to go into Charleston, South Carolina one night of the week. Janelle Driscoll ’09 said, “Going into Charleston, South Carolina is always one of the trip’s highlights. This year the whole group wanted to eat at Sticky Fingers, which is a popular barbeque restaurant in South Carolina. We had to set up two reservations for 20 people each, and then they sat us all at three long, long tables. Needless to say, dinner was finger lickin’ good.” Another student tradition is to pull an all-nighter the last night of the trip. After a week of bonding, everyone is comfortable spending the night together. The students dragged mattresses and sleeping bags onto the dock. Throughout the night, everyone talks and plays games until 4:30 a.m. the next morning when the students are whisked back home in the rally wagons. Drained from the previous nights’ activities, everyone passes out and sleeps all the way to Baltimore. On several nights the group came together for a reflection in which they discussed topics such as the church service, religion, the work sites and the group dynamic. Alana “Bobo” Rush, Teaching Fellow in Community Service, said, “I was incredibly impressed with the students’ ability to talk about what challenged them, bothered them or struck them on any given day. They did not sugarcoat the matters just because they were talking to teachers. The fact that they spoke the truth made the discussion really worthwhile.” One memorable reflection was when the group discussed the usefulness of this trip. Some students wondered if our work could make more of an impact somewhere else. Phillips Academy students have been coming to Johns Island for about 26 years and are well-known by the people of Johns Island. During reflection, some students said that they felt they could have chosen better work sites. Some wondered if their work would have been put to better use if they had worked on the houses of families instead of individuals. Reverend Ebner remembered one of his first visits to South Carolina. He recalled an experience in which a group of students who were working on one of the designated worksites and drinking Coca Cola were approached by a group of nearby children who asked if they could have some. The students saw where these children lived and how little they had. There were numerous partially-clothed barefoot children living in a small shack. The students were shocked, and some even cried. This trip helps you appreciate what you have and not to take life for granted. Once you witness the poverty of Johns Island, you want to do all you can to help.