Cumberland College student Amy Acree picks up a saw and hammer and labors in the dog days of summer, working alongside other volunteers to build a house for a financially disadvantaged Whitley County family.
The effort is part of Mountain Outreach, a non-profit home building and repair ministry founded in 1982 by two Cumberland College students. A project that receives no government assistance, Mountain Outreach is funded by private donations as well as support from many area businesses.
The building project is an opportunity to fulfill part of the college’s community service requirement, but for Acree, the experience also yielded some unexpected lessons.
“It is interesting,” laughs Acree, confessing she has never worked on a construction project before. “I’ve done mission trips, but to be able to come out here and do this…it doesn’t seem real now that it’s finished.”
Acree says her participation in the project allows her to help change a small piece of Kentucky’s landscape, but says she is also deeply affected by the people she has met.
“It’s very humbling,” Acree says, reflecting on her friendship with the Vanovers, the family who received the home. A family of eight, the Vanovers’ quiet strength and dignity enabled them to live happily together despite the financial disadvantages they often faced, Acree says. “We (students) thought we realized how much we have, but even though they didn’t seem to have a lot, they were happy together before this house was built.”
Perhaps that same spirit of caring for fellow Kentuckians was the inspiration for founding Mountain Outreach two decades ago.
It began when Cumberland College student Robert Day took classmate David Emmert into the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. Day wanted to show Emmert the living conditions many mountain residents endured.
Emmert, having come from a typical middle-class home, was shocked and saddened by what he saw: people living in homes that were little more than tarpaper shacks, lacking running water, proper sanitation, or electricity.
The two men decided to do something about the conditions they saw, and what Day and Emmert lacked in materials and know-how, they made up for in determination. They rallied more Cumberland students and scoured the community for materials to build homes for the needy.
Twenty years and some 100 homes later, the seeds of that initial effort have blossomed into a ministry that is touching the lives of Kentucky residents all over the Commonwealth. It’s also touching the lives of people who live beyond Kentucky, as Cumberland College students and volunteers are now joined by church ministry teams from all over the United States.
No matter how many volunteers work a project, building a house is never an easy endeavor, according to Cumberland College student Lee Martin, who briefly helped on Mountain Outreach’s 100th home this summer. He assisted a crew in which only half of the team had construction experience.
“Sometimes the siding doesn’t go up right. Things have to be re-cut three or four times,” says Martin. “You get aggravated sometimes, but it is amazing to see that even when things go wrong, these people keep smiling, no matter what happens, because of their common love for God.”
Dallas Vest, a Mountain Outreach veteran of more than 70 building projects, says he too has seen that sense of faith and unified mission at work on other sites. Vest says students may initially be surprised by the strenuous labor, uncomfortable conditions, and long hours needed to build a house in just a matter of weeks, but they soon form a bond that helps them complete their task.
“At first they seem like fish out of water, then they find a way to work together,” says Vest. “By the time the house is finished, they have a whole new outlook.”
As rewarding as the sense of camaraderie may be, Vest says there is one big payoff that has kept him coming back to Mountain Outreach projects again and again for the last 13 years.
“Seeing the look on children’s faces when they see their first house,” Vest says, “that makes it all worth it.”
Mountain Outreach Family Home
To say that Carlus and Deborah Vanover needed a new house for their family would be the height of understatement.
Raising six children in any home could be considered a challenge, but the Vanovers were raising their brood in less than ideal conditions.
In recent years, the foundation of their old Whitley County house was sinking and the floor had begun to crack. During the rainy season, as many as 12 buckets were used at a time to catch rainwater seeping in through a failing roof. Worse yet, the prospects for owning their own home–a warm, safe place to raise their kids–seemed distant. That changed when they applied for help from Cumberland College’s Mountain Outreach ministry.
Out of 37 families who applied to receive a new home, the Vanovers were chosen to receive one of seven Mountain Outreach homes built in 2002. Mountain Outreach Director David Honeycutt says that after the applications are reviewed and the interviews are done comes the toughest part of the job: choosing who will and won’t receive a house in a given year.
“We have a very serious prayer time, because I tell them (students) whether we choose a family to build for, or we choose not to build, we’re affecting the lives of the families. That is a major responsibility we have been given, and I want to make sure we are in the right frame of mind and right in the Lord’s will when it comes to choosing who we’re going to build for.”
As hard as that job can be, being involved in the work of construction mission is like an answered prayer, Honeycutt says. “I’m fortunate. It’s very rewarding to be able to see the difference we can make in people’s lives through Mountain Outreach.”
After a building team spent approximately six weeks on-site this summer, Carlus and Deborah moved into their new Whitley County home with their children, Anthony, Chessa, Carla, Summer, Cory, and Patrick.
Like other recipients of Mountain Outreach homes, the Vanovers will make a small mortgage payment, which averages $60 a month for most recipients, allowing them to realize their dream of owning a home.
“You’d have to live my life to know how special that day was to me,” says Deborah of the day she learned her family would have a new home. “I’ve been on cloud nine ever since.”
Mountain Outreach Info
Cumberland College Mountain Outreach
7521 College Station Drive
Williamsburg, KY 40769
Executive Director: David Honeycutt