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Volunteers restore homes -- and people's lives


KINGWOOD, W. Va. -- Grammy Marietta stood behind her 100-year-old home and marveled at how easily so many memories were disappearing before her eyes.

The diminutive grandmother, 64 years old and barely 4 feet tall, watched with her ever-present smile as 10 of 49 volunteers from Harford and Baltimore counties deftly dismantled her rotted back porch to make way for the new one they would build.

"Now the back door's going to open without hitting the sagging roof," she said.

Sharing with a stranger her fond memories of happier times, Grammy Marietta spoke nearly in a whisper about her late husband, who had suffered a stroke.

"We used to spend a lot of time on that porch, me a-rocking and him just a-sitting in his wheelchair enjoying the view," she said.

The sounds of her grandchildren playing in the yard quickly brought her back to reality. She shooed them out of the work crew's way.

"Don't bring no lunch tomorrow," she told the volunteers. "Grammy will be a-cooking.' "

The volunteers from five Baltimore-area Roman Catholic parishes had come 250 miles to work last week in this remote portion of Preston County because they wanted to reach out -- with hammers and nails, shovels and paint brushes -- to help victims of floods, fires and poverty.

Grammy Marietta was eager to serve them lunch -- a tasty beef stew -- the next afternoon.

With it, they got a large helping of history, about the life of a young black woman growing up in a segregated world more than half a century ago.

Youth ministers from St. Ignatius in Hickory, St. Margaret's in Bel Air, St. Mary's in Pylesville, Our Lady of Grace in Parkton and the Church of the Nativity in Lutherville organized the cooperative outreach project.

The volunteers, 80 percent of them teen-agers and young adults, each paid $80 for the trip and supplied their own transportation to participate in the annual program, which began in 1987.

Most of this year's volunteers were first-timers, which brought a smile to Joe Slovick's bearded face. The 24-year-old from Our Lady of Grace parish came to Appalachia for the sixth time.

"That's so many more new voices to go back and let others know how much work there is to do here," he said last Sunday, as the Baltimore group joined volunteers from Pittsburgh, Pa., and Summit, N.J., for an orientation at St. Sebastian in Kingwood, W. Va.

The Rev. Jerome McKenna, C.P., the Passionist pastor at St. Sebastian, helped put the needs of Preston County's poor in perspective for the volunteers.

"Just consider that the highlight of life in this county of 29,000 mostly unemployed people was last week's grand opening of the county's first MacDonald's," said the elderly priest, whom everyone calls Father Jerome.

He said 400 teen-agers applied for jobs at the fast-food restaurant.

The volunteers were boarded near Terra Alta at Camp Galilee, once an exclusive vacation retreat until fire destroyed its huge inn.

Their jobs at seven sites ranged from restoring insulation, washed from beneath the floor of a trailer in February's Cheat River flood, to building a 12-by-16-foot room on the back of a trailer for a family with four preschool children.

The Appalachian project's common bond is Sister Marjorie Gallagher, S.N.D., said Rachel Knauer, the parish youth minister at St. Ignatius. She is co-director of this summer's operation with Bob Silcox, of St. Margaret's parish.

Miss Knauer said Sister Marjorie, who once was assigned to St. Joseph's in Cockeysville, spent several summers working in Preston County before she became director of religious education at St. Sebastian. Sister Marjorie spends much time identifying families in need and organizing volunteer groups to help them.

Miss Knauer recalled returning home from her first Appalachian trip in 1990 and sobbing as she climbed into her father's car to go back to her middle-class life.

"It changed my life," she said. "We have so much and people in Appalachia have so little, yet their spirit toward life is awesome."

St. Ignatius' contact with Appalachia goes year-around. The church's parishioners regularly donate food and clothing that are trucked to the Raymond Wolfe Center, a food pantry for the poor in Kingwood. A recent truckload of food lasted six days, said Dave Strickler, the center director.

For the building project, most of the supplies were donated by Baltimore-area merchants. Lumber and other materials were purchased in Preston County to stimulate the economy.

Buoyed by such support, one work crew drove 12 miles in a heavy downpour Monday morning to Raccoon Valley Road, outside Tunnelton, where a father, 31, mother, 29, and their four preschool children had been living in a shack until half of it collapsed.

"They came, asking if we could help with a leaky roof," Sister Marjorie said.

The leak was beyond repair.

Sister Marjorie tapped her network. Someone mentioned an old trailer in Pennsylvania that wasn't needed. The $800 cost of moving it to West Virginia was paid by donations to St. Ignatius' Appalachian Fund, Sister Marjorie said.

The family's crumbling home was torn down to make room for the trailer, which was set on hand-stacked cinder blocks and rocks. The volunteer crew's mission was to build an addition to create more living space for the family.

The rain hampered the workers' first-day efforts, but by Friday, Miss Knauer reported, the addition was ready to have electricity and Sheetrock installed by another volunteer group that Sister Marjorie has enticed to complete the job.

Along the banks of the Cheat River, another crew insulated the floor of Edith McDowell's trailer. Floods have displaced her family twice.

Mrs. McDowell orders food and cooks for the volunteers at Camp Galilee each summer, and speaks glowingly of the young visitors who "show so much joy in helping others."

Her efforts for them -- she spent 12 hours in the camp kitchen Monday preparing spaghetti and homemade sauce, for example -- were her way of saying "Thank you."

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