Tuesday May 15, 2012

Where The Walls Talk

For nearly 50 years, our students have lived among the people of Salyersville, Ky. They live simply and learn more than they ever could imagine.

These walls can talk.

"I am home."  "Be. Love."  "The best we can be is good for each other." "So many roads to ease my soul." "I awoke this morning, tired and dirty, I felt full!"

These are just a few of the seemingly random, yet deeply personal, thoughts University of Dayton students have scribbled on the walls of a dilapidated, $100-a-month 1930s farmhouse in the hills of Kentucky they call home for nine weeks each summer. The University of Dayton Summer Appalachia Program is the University’s longest-standing campus ministry service program. This year's group of 15 students departs campus May 29 with vanloads full of donated food and clothing in tow.

For nearly half a century — 48 years, to be exact — University of Dayton students have lived among the people of Salyersville, Ky. It's a tiny, rich-in-spirit slice of Appalachia just 227 miles away from campus but worlds apart in way of life.

Of Salyersville's 1,600 residents, about 18 percent are unemployed and more than 40 percent live below the poverty line. And that was before a March tornado devastated more than a dozen businesses, a Catholic church and a middle school in this close-knit community where family ties run deep.

The students will run a free day camp and teen center and volunteer at a nursing home during a summer where they will live simply and learn more than they ever imagined about themselves. They will give up most of life's material trappings — TVs, cell phones and computers — share a bathroom with one sink and sleep on the floor or in bunk beds in a house with no air conditioning.

In fact, they will reside in more primitive conditions than many of the people in this largely isolated, rural community where some live in aging trailers in the hollers and others have taken up residence in comfortable middle-class homes on a main road.

"We have a great outhouse, and if you want to take a shower, it's out back behind the barn or you can bathe in the lake," says Brother Tom Pieper, S.M., a 67-year-old Marianist brother who’s been traveling to Salyersville with the students for 13 years. The students affectionately call him "BT."

"We don't go down to save people. We go down to learn and reflect and live together in community," he says.

That's a message that resonates with the UDSAPers, as they call themselves. "I feel I was born to do this," says Jann Knappage, a senior dietetics major from Medina, Ohio. "I felt called to do this. When you have a strong gut feeling, someone once told me it's like the Holy Spirit pushing you in a direction."

Taylor Beyerle, a senior special education major from Vandalia, Ohio, is packing her summer's belongings in a 12-inch-deep Tupperware container and looking forward to an "eye-opening" experience. Beyerle and Knappage lived together in a Marianist student community in the campus neighborhood this year, but they know this experience may change them even more deeply.

"I will learn the difference between what I need and what I want this summer. How many college students get to do this?" Beyerle asks. "Salyersville is just four hours from Dayton, but it's a completely different lifestyle. The people are so welcoming. They welcome us in their homes. They want to share their life stories and want us to share ours. This could be a really impactful experience that could help shape my life after UD."

It was "hotter than hell" the summer Donny Rambacher lived in Salyersville, but he looks back on the experience as one of the best moments of his life. Later, he returned for a weekend to photograph the people he met and record their stories in their own words for a major project in an upper-level visual design course.

The students Rambacher lived with became some of his closest friends, ones he says he will cherish forever.

"We played a lot of euchre, did everything together. I liked Sunday night prayer because it was a way to remind us why we were there. But I particularly loved waking up, opening my eyes and reading a new quote on the wall," says Rambacher, who headed to Chicago after graduating this month. "It’s a place full of memories."

BT sums up best what a summer in Salyersville is all about: "If you don't want to be changed, don't apply."

That's worth writing on the wall.

For assistance in scheduling media interviews, contact Teri Rizvi, associate vice president for University communications, at 937-229-3241.