The scene was controlled chaos in the United Methodist Church parking lot last Friday night. Keith Worthington, visible in his canary yellow t-shirt, is the director of the Appalachia Service Project (APS), and he's been "in charge" for 10 years. Church members were loading up supplies before heading off for a week in one of the most impoverished areas of the country.
He said the project is a 7-week summer program that works together with other churches to do home repair for low income familis in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Each church usually stays a week and then passes the torch to the next arriving group. APS has been around since 1969. This is the 19th year the Geneva church has participated.
"I wish I could say we'll put them out of business one of these days, but we won't," Worthington said. "The poverty in that part of the country is generational, deeply entrenched. We do the best we can."
Their effort will include various types of home repair such as roofing, porch repair and underpinning.
Following a hearty pasta dinner at the church, the halls and parking lot were filled with people of all ages hauling backpacks, coolers and other supplies to load up 14 12-passenger vans and three delivery trucks that left around 7 a.m. on Saturday.
After an 8-hour drive, the group will have an overnight stop in Lexington, Kentucky before splitting up to arrive at their destinations. Nine vans and two delivery trucks will then head to Magoffin County, an impoverished area that was hit hard by spring tornadoes.
Then a group of 37 is heading off to Lawrence County, about an hour further east.
On Sunday, the groups meet with the families for the first time and work out their plan for work beginning Monday morning.
"Basically, a crew from another church has been there the week before," Worthington said. "We'll pick up where they left off."
Everyone gets a crash course on home repair, but there are "veterans" in the group to help those first-timers. Out of this group, 62 have done this before and 42 are first-timers. Ages range from incoming freshman to one member who is 85.
"We've got a lot of newbies in both groups," Worthington said. "We'll make sure everybody needs to know what to do."
He said many who make the trip for the first time are surprised by the level of poverty.
"Unless you've done some kind of volunteer work in this area, you may not realize that even in our own midst there's poverty under our own nose," he said of the need that exists in the Tri-Cities. "Some of the conditions (in Appalachia) do shock people the first time they ssee it."
Worthington said that some of the people in these impoverished areas do get a high school degree and if they become a college graduate, they're "in the 1 percent educationally down there."
So, does an education mean a ticket out of the area?
"Surprisingly, people may go away for a few years, but a lot of them end up going back," Worthington said.
"The lure of the mountains is very powerful. It drags people back."