Someone: “How was your summer?”
Me: “It was amazing, life-changing.”
Someone: “…what did you do?”
It’s hard to describe exactly what I've done the past seven summers, but what I can attempt to describe is what the summers have done to me.
Understanding Through Experiencing.
Spending summers working with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) puts you face to face with the poverty so prevalent throughout the Central Appalachian region. While week long trips are one way to learn about the area and the situations families face on a daily basis, spending an entire summer forces you to truly understand, or kao jai ("understand” in Thai). To take it a bit further, the “jai” in kao jai translates to “heart,” so literally translated kao jai is, “to enter one’s heart,” which is exactly what my experience with ASP has allowed me to do.
I have spent countless hours on the couches of family members listening to their stories of heartache, but also hope. I have walked around their homes as they set aside their pride to show me how their homes had started to deteriorate around them. I have played with children who’s only “nutrients” are contained in the food packs that schools provide for the kids to eat on weekends. I have witnessed the volunteers feed those same children peanut butter and jelly sandwiches alleviating the unbearable worry of where their next meal will come from because school is not in session.
After you are able to enter someone’s heart, you are able to, in a small way, feel what that person is feeling. That is what is means to understand.
Turning Passion into Action.
Where there is a will, there is a way. Reverend Glen “Tex” Evans saw a need and had the will to make a difference. He started with just a few volunteers, donated materials and a contagious passion and enthusiasm for the people of Appalachia. Today, ASP hosts about 15,000 volunteers in 32 different communities each summer repairing 500 homes.
Working as a summer staffer and essentially running a small non-profit in the mountains of Appalachia with three others made me come alive. Appalachia Service Project set my sights on big things. Transforming the lives of 18 families and 500 volunteers is no small task, but we did it.
While teaching in Thailand, my fiancé (also a former ASP staffer), Kyle, and I were looking for an adventure when we decided to ask the owner of the coffee shop we frequently visited if we could tag along with her to the mountain to meet the farmers. When we arrived to the mountain, we were given an extra pair of worn out gloves, rubber boots and a handmade basket to collect bright red coffee cherries.
The "Aha" Moment.
Harvesting coffee cherries in the Golden Triangle of Northern Thailand was by far one of the coolest things I have done in my life so far. While Kyle and I took in the surreal countryside views and lush green colors following rainy season, we had to do much of our listening with our eyes because we could not understand the Thai/Akha language being exchanged between the farmers.
As we picked a few cherries and took some pictures, we listened to the environment. Our hearts were listening more than our eyes at this point. We saw older grandparents picking alongside their grandchildren. The grandparents’ fingers were frail and stiff from picking for so many years. The children wore old hand-me-down t-shirts and jeans while they joked with each other. We quickly realized that the poverty that existed in the mountains was partially due to the nonexistent market for the farmer’s coffee. Family members including the young and the old had to harvest as much as possible just to simply live.
One Small Step.
Kyle and I could have left the mountain that day accepting the way of life that we witnessed on the mountain. But, instead with a lot of thought, and inspiration from our past experiences in the mountains in Appalachia, we, like Tex, decided that this was something we wanted to change.
We are starting small, but the buzz about the Thai coffee the farmers care so deeply about is starting to grow with every passing day. Working for ASP has shown me that anything is possible. It has allowed me to identify a need and understand the steps to take to meet that need. Creating and fostering growth and sustainability within a village in the Golden Triangle is a large fete, but with each bag of coffee we sell, it matters.
Sharing the Love.
I am so excited to take the pictures and the reviews from our customers back to Thailand some day to show the farmers that their hard work is making so many people so happy. As Mr. Rogers once said, “The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile,” and I can’t wait to help foster that feeling within the farming community.
Thank You, Tex for teaching me the ultimate lesson that has led me to where I am today: Where there is a will, there is a way.
Megan Armstrong: Co-Founder