Fall Break Spotlight: The Mountains are Calling, An Appalachia Seminar Reflection

Author: Catherine O'Leary

For many, fall break is a time to return home, relax, and unwind from the stress of midterms week. However, this was not my case this fall break. Instead of packing my suitcase to return home to South Carolina, I packed a small duffel, sleeping bag, and pillow, and I headed off to West Virginia for the Appalachia Service and Immersion Trip through the Center for Social Concerns here at Notre Dame.

For both Spring and Fall Break, the CSC takes students of all 4 years to 19 different sites in the Appalachian Region. Although the sites vary on their type of work, emphasis on spirituality and level of immersive intensity, the common goal of the trips is to both educate the students on the issues and realities of the Appalachian region while also allowing them to serve in small yet profoundly meaningful ways.

My particular site, Nazareth Farm, is an intentional living community established in 1979. Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted by the staff, who at that time were complete strangers, with a hug and a friendly “Welcome Home." Our phones and watches were then collected for the duration of the week (some were ceded more willingly than others). At that moment, I knew that we were in for an intense week. But I could have truly never imagined how wonderful and transformational my time at Naz Farm would be.

The Farm was founded on 4 cornerstones: prayer, service, community, and simplicity. Each morning, we were woken up before sunrise to meet for morning prayer. We completed chores around the farm, ate a delicious and completely home cooked breakfast, and split into our various assigned work crews to head to our respective work sites. These sites included the construction of two wheelchair ramps and a front deck, as well as siding and insulating a house. All 4 of these projects were completed during our week in WV, and it was so beautiful to see how our efforts so closely impacted the lives of the respective homeowners.

At the end of the day, we’d return to the farm, eat another delectable, homemade meal, and do evening prayer. And my personal favorite part of each day was winding down with my fellow volunteers by simply being together. Without phones as distractions, we quickly grew into a family. From late night deep conversations, to card games, to endless rounds of “Hot Seat,” Nazareth Farm created a family out people who, before this seminar, were complete strangers.

This seminar impacted me in many ways. First, although I have visited the Appalachian region before, and was vaguely aware of the challenges and issues that it faces. This immersion greatly increased my awareness and knowledge on this subject. Additionally, it’s easy to become wrapped up in the everyday stresses of college life at Notre Dame, but through contact with many of the Appalachian Homeowners and Community Members, we were reminded that we must not allow ourselves to become numb to the sufferings of our Brothers and Sisters. Lastly, my Appalachia Seminar took a group of strangers of all ages and walks of life, and from this created lifelong friends.

I am infinitely grateful for my experience at Nazareth Farm, and West Virginia and its people will forever be in my heart.