Oak Knoll Senior Spends Summer Renovating Impoverished Home in Rural West Virginia

A trip to rural Preston County, West Virginia – prone to steady poverty and heavy flooding – reinforced the importance of helping those in need for Mary Kate Bolster ’23 of Madison. 

Bolster, a parishioner of Saint Patrick’s Parish in Chatham and member of their Youth Ministry Program, recently returned from the Appalachia Help Weeks Program where she – one of 19 teenagers and eight adults – made needed improvements and renovations to dilapidated homes owned by people living in rural poverty.

Bolster and volunteers were assigned to groups and worked on different home renovation projects from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Bolster’s group added paneling to the bottom of a home because animals were eating away at the foundation. Next, they paneled the inside walls because of exposed insulation and built new outside stairs. Finally, Bolster’s group replaced rotting doors with two new doors to stop insects from entering the home. 

“Being involved in the church is something I love, as is being part of youth ministry which led me to this service trip,” said Bolster. “Service is something I love to do because I know it will benefit someone else whether that be in a big or small way and in many ways, it benefits me.” 

In the evenings, Bolster and the volunteers returned to the local VFW where a different team was assigned each night to prepare dinner and a dessert for the whole group. After dinner they held discussions and prayer reflections about their daily experiences.

“This week made me realize how grateful and fortunate I am to live in the town I do and have the family that I have,” said Bolster, whose sister Hannah Bolster ’21 also volunteered at an Appalachia Helps Week Program two years ago. “So many of the families in West Virginia are in horrible states of poverty and face terrible trauma but manage to face every day with a positive mindset.” 

The Appalachia Help Weeks Program began in 1986 as a flood relief effort. A Catholic parish in NJ partnered with a Catholic parish in WV to help those in Preston County whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged by a 500-year flood of the Cheat River. 

Over the next 35 years, this partnership shifted from flood relief to basic poverty relief and grew into one of the largest Appalachia home repair programs in the country. Several parishes throughout NJ, PA and MD now partner with the Catholic Church of Preston County in serving those whose lives and homes are affected by rural poverty. 

Bolster volunteered with teens and adults also from Saint Patrick’s in Chatham and Saint Pius X in Montville. 

“There are so many people in this country who need help and don’t have the resources to help themselves,” said Bolster. “This trip made me realized how much I love service and how I need to become more involved in other service projects. I would encourage younger students to experience this service trip and to step out of their comfort zones. You learn so many new things, such as how to use tools. Although it may seem intimidating at first because it is a different way of living – this service project has changed me for the better.”