Workcampers Travel South: Good NEWS For West Virginia Residents
Newtown Ecumenical Workcamp Servants (NEWS) — this year, a group of 40 young adults ages 15-18 and 16 chaperones — spent a week last month working on homes of some of the nation’s poorest residents.
The young adults did fundraising events to cover the costs of traveling to the Appalachian region of West Virginia and even spent a very cold overnight in February sleeping outdoors, getting a feeling for what life can be like for those who do not have safe, sturdy homes to protect them.
One of this year’s workcampers also did an additional project ahead of the June 22-30 journey.
A few weeks before leaving Newtown, Tyler DiMartino put out a call to fellow residents, asking for donations of shoes.
Ahead of his third service trip with NEWS, Tyler decided he wanted to do something more to help the community he and others would be working in.
“I was thinking that while it was amazing to help families fix their home, I wanted to do something with an added benefit,” Tyler said July 11, reflecting on this year’s service trip. “You see that it’s hard for them to get a nice pair of shoes, especially shoes that they can use in the winter.”
So he collected gently worn and new shoes of all types, setting up four collection locations around town.
Tyler received well above 1,000 pairs of shoes, he estimated. In the days before departure, he and his mother organized boxes and bags by size and style in the garage of the family’s home.
There were new and gently used shoes for men, women, and children, ranging from sneakers and other daytime shoes to work boots and snow boots. Lauren DiMartino was unsure if they would all fit into the U-Haul trailer NEWS had rented to move its equipment to Hinton, W.Va., where the group stayed.
NEWS worked this year with Appalachia Service Project (ASP), the outreach program that lends assistance to poorer rural communities in the Appalachia region.
Reverend Matt Crebbin, senior pastor of Newtown Congregational Church and a member of the NEWS board, called Tyler’s efforts “a unique add-on for us” that had “quite an impact.”
While Tyler had initially been told that his collection would be forwarded to a nonprofit organization that would take care of getting the shoes to those who needed them, he asked for a different distribution method.
“I wanted to directly give the shoes to the people I was working with,” he said last week.
With permission granted, Tyler and other workcampers spoke to each of the families at the homes where they had been assigned. Each family was asked to provide the first name of each person in the home, each person’s shoe size, and the type of shoes they would like.
When the workcampers returned to the high school where they were based that Monday evening, they continued working, according to Laura Roche, another of this year’s chaperones.
“Tyler had presorted the shoes, and then the kids came back after speaking with their families, and they worked together to get the right shoes out for their families,” she said. “They rebagged them and then delivered them to their families the next day.”
There were so many donations from Newtown, Tyler said, “we were able to give most people a few pairs of shoes.”
Even after distributing the shoes among those in the seven project homes, there were still many pairs that went to Reach, a Hinton nonprofit, for distribution, according to Lauren DiMartino.
Ms DiMartino saw the effect her son’s efforts had on the recipients.
“The homeowners weren’t expecting the shoes,” she said. “From a pride perspective, ASP wanted to make sure the people weren’t insulted” with the offering, she said. The recipients were very grateful, she added.
“One woman hadn’t had new shoes for five years, another woman hadn’t had new shoes for 25 years, and one man had been stitching his sneakers back together,” Ms DiMartino said. “There was definitely the hardship of not spending money on shoes.”
The collection, said Rev Crebbin, “had quite an impact down in Hinton, W.Va. Most of the local families who had crews from ASP repairing their homes were able to get at least several pairs of shoes for family members.
“For a number of people, it was an opportunity to receive some nearly new shoes for the first time in a long time,” he continued. “Many of our families also were able to help other family members living nearby who also lacked adequate footwear. I know the family at the site where I was working was very excited and grateful.”
Laura Roche felt the shoes being given to the families in Hinton allowed Newtown’s young adults to bond with their families.
“I’ve done this three times,” she said, “and with ASP, you get close to the families. It’s a very remote area, and it’s usually just seven or eight of you at the site and the families, so you really bond with the families anyway.
“I realized this year the kids got to know the families and played with the kids. They really bonded with the kids in addition to building,” Ms Roche said. “The shoe thing really helped that as well. The kids felt they were giving more and able to help the kids.
“It was a very nice piece to be added on to everything,” she said.
The 2019 NEWS group represented Christ the King Lutheran Church, Congregation Adath Israel, Newtown Congregational Church, Newtown United Methodist Church, and St Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, all of Newtown; B’nai Israel of Southbury; and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Brookfield.
Tyler, however, is unaffiliated. He followed in the footsteps of an older sister, who also joined friends for NEWS service trips in previous years.
“I’ve done this since eighth grade,” he said last week.
A group from North Carolina was also working with ASP during the same week the Newtown group was in Hinton last month. ASP coordinates groups to work on project homes for five days, before another group of workcampers arrives for the next work week.
The project group that Tyler DeMartino worked with in Hinton completely replaced the bathroom floor of their project home, he said.
“There were holes in the bathroom floor when we got there,” he commented. “If you stepped too hard, you went through the floor.
“We completely fixed that.”
Rev Crebbin said other crews did repairs on homes so that family members, such as young children or older people with health conditions, would be able to return and live there.
“A number of the homes and bathrooms or kitchens were unusable or were in such a state that rain and snow collected inside certain rooms,” he said.
It doesn’t take a religious affiliation to gain an appreciation for workcamp. Tyler has been touched, he said, by hearing stories from fellow workcampers as well as those he has interacted with over the years.
“My first year, we went to Pittsburgh,” he said. “I saw 12-year-olds who were dropping out of school and getting involved with gangs. The first homeowner, she stuck with me the most. She knew she was living a hard life, but she was very thankful to have a dinner.
“I thought of all the times when I would ask my mother what we would be having or asked if we could have something in particular,” he said. “These people were worried about having anything at all. It really makes me appreciate what we have. I am very thankful.”