My summer was about Brenda.  Brenda lost her home to a flood in spring of 2009.  She’s been out of a home for over a year and a half.  She’s been living in a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer for a while now, but before that she and her husband went from door to door asking their neighbors for a place to sleep and shower.  Brenda has been down on her luck; not only did she loose her home, but she lost her husband to cancer this spring and purchased a secondhand  replacement trailer that was in unlivable condition.   Brenda’s life was stuck in the mud – everything from her possessions from her past life, which were literally buried in mud from the flood, to her state of mind and feeling of entrapment from her familiar responsibilities and lack of housing.

Thankfully enough, Brenda came into contact with the PV volunteers and we were able to help renovate her home!  Throughout my seven short weeks in West Virginia, Brenda’s home became my home.  I chose to continue my service at Brenda’s because I became enchanted with the idea of providing Brenda with a fresh start; I wanted to help Brenda become unstuck from her mud.

At Brenda’s new home,  I plastered, sanded, primed, and painted;  installed drywall, paneling, closets, microwaves, molding, trim, thresholds, and  laminate flooring; used jigsaws, circular saws, handsaws, and chop saws; hammered, lifted, pushed, and caulked; and most importantly, learned what it really means to empathize.  Before I realized, I had gained so much more from my service to Brenda than I could possibly give to her.  It felt so nice to wakeup everyday with a purpose and a goal, to feel like I was working on something with significant meaning.  The transformations that took place at Brenda’s home were unbelievable.  I became a part of a movement that was greater than myself; I joined the larger PV community at whole which worked in unison to renovate Brenda’s trailer and Brenda’s state of mind.  Brenda’s home now looks fabulous – it could be a studio apartment in the city – and comes only second to Brenda’s new, positive outlook of the future.  The PV’s work at Brenda’s is a true testament of what teamwork can achieve.

I was also involved with tutoring; every Tuesday I worked with four children who are incredible and talented in their own unique ways.  The tutoring program, led by Lori and Eileen, was a great success.  Not only did these two women have our students confidently reading (and enjoying) chapter books by the end of the summer, but they worked to build the students’ self esteem as well.  The progress that resulted (of both the tutoring program itself and the kids) was inspirational to view throughout the summer.  I must add that Aidan’s work with these same children at soccer camp was an excellent addition to their summer enrichment.

Fridays I worked with UGWA (Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association) and the residents of Glen Rogers Manor.  UGWA’s focus is on the ways economic activity in the Upper Guyandotte Watershed region negatively affects the quality of water and land, and acts to correct these externalities.  To put it simply, environmental misuse and degradation is associated with economically deprived regions; proper trash collection/disposal and environmental maintenance become luxuries when monetary resources are strained.  Many Friday mornings were spent outdoors with the PVs collecting trash, testing water quality, and wielding a machete for trail clearing – doing whatever it takes to help UGWA achieve its vision of environmental sustainability.

My Friday afternoons spent at Glen Rogers manor was a heartwarming and heartbreaking experience.  The residents at Glen Rogers manor, I discovered, are more than what meets the eye.  When you talk to the residents you find that they had past lives; residents were teachers, mothers, fathers, ex-military veterans, wives, and husbands.  Some of the residents have even found love in their new home; many are engaged to be married to fellow residents.  One of my accomplishments I am most proud of this summer is my suggestion for extended visiting time to paint women’s nails.  It was during this time that we were able to learn about the residents on more personal levels.  I believe that the residents truly appreciated the pampering and the physical interaction; like my grandma Jo says, “Everyone needs a warm extended hand in one way or another.”

The PV experience, however, is more than just volunteerism.  We gather as a community, we reflect, we laugh, we discuss, we theorize, we listen, we feel on deeper levels, we play games, we eat great meals, we stop and smell the West Virginia wild flowers.  We rejoice in each other’s minds and abilities.  To truly immerse one’s self in West Virginia and to come to love the PV volunteers is to leave a piece of one’s self behind West Virginia.  I think that this is what always draws us back to WV – the need to feel so whole again and purposeful and connected as we do in WV with the PVs.  We return year, after year, after year to regain – if even for a week – that piece of ourselves that we can never get back, that piece we’ve left buried in the mountains and hearts of West Virginia.

My summer was awesome.   It was the perfect mix of activism, hands on dirty work, responsibility, nature, and adventure.  I hope to live by the lessons I’ve learned and values I’ve gained.  The most meaningful of all my service experience in WV was the time spent talking and listening to the people we hope to help.  I’ve decided to continue my service at home by spending time as a hospice volunteer; though I have yet to serve, I am currently waiting to be matched with a hospice patient.  I also have chosen to pursue a career that involves community development.  I love the PV ideal of acting locally to enact change and social justice for the underserved; I wish to work on the state and municipal government levels, evolving policy and making decisions that pertain to economic and community development/re-development, land use, environmental protection/conservation, waste disposal, housing, agriculture, employment, health, women’s empowerment, and education.

Thank you to all of the volunteers that made my summer particularly wonderful.  Special thanks to Jenny and Jill for providing me with this life changing opportunity!  I hope everyone has an excellent year. Please keep in touch.   See you in West Virginia!

-Lauren Rittenbach

Lauren first began volunteering with the PVs with her grandmother Jo. Her sister, brother and cousins have joined in on the trip at various times.