By Robert Winship
In the summer of 2004, Melisa Miller was a freshman in high school. Like most of her fellow high school students, she had barely swung a hammer.
Melisa knew nothing about how to hang sheets of drywall or insulate a house and little about life on a construction site. Nonetheless, she found herself on a trip to Central Appalachia. The goal? To help homeowners in need by learning how to fix leaky roofs, build wheelchair ramps and secure foundations.
Armed with some professionals and a willingness to teach, Appalachia Service Project takes thousands of volunteers like Melisa and puts tools and skills in hand with a big purpose in mind: to eradicate substandard housing in Central Appalachia.
Melisa recalls sitting on the porch beside a homeowner who she’d been working with during one of her first volunteer projects. The team had repaired some plumbing in the kitchen and was installing insulation and siding on the house. "I think this is gonna make a big difference” the woman told her. Melisa responded, "Well, I hope so. That’s why we’re here.” But the woman went on to clarify that the leaks being fixed in the house were so bad they would fill up pots and pans throughout the house and then turn to ice from the cold. “Now ... I’m from Florida," explains Melisa, "so the idea of water that would freeze inside a home in wintertime was something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
What Melisa saw that day might not be revelatory, but what she experienced is. Relationships become the subtext in a summer work crew narrative. Students come from Florida (or Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania) to Central Appalachia to help repair homes, but they also develop close relationships with the homeowners themselves. These relationships are eye-opening and transformative.
Like so many ASP volunteers, Melisa was hooked. She kept coming back and eventually continued working with ASP as a college student through their summer staff program. Today Melisa is Executive Vice President of ASP.