With hometowns as varied as New York and Mexico, six Notre Dame students descended on Carroll County this past week with a couple of common goals – helping their fellow man and learning about Appalachia.
Hosted by the Fisher Peak Chapter of the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the six students spent the week in Carroll County doing a variety of service activities. During their time here, the group of Fighting Irish students helped clear trails on the parkway, performed work at the Blue Ridge Music Center on the parkway and worked with and mentored students at the Joy Ranch Home for Children in Woodlawn. It was all part of an Appalachian Seminar the students are taking at Notre Dame, one of the biggest courses offered at the Indiana university.
“It’s essentially both a service trip, what we are doing now, as well as a course to prepare us ahead of time,” student Katie Luotto said of the Appalachian Seminar. “I think it’s really important to come in knowing the history of the region, knowing some of the challenges that are present today. It also gives us a new appreciation of the culture.”
Bill Boehner, a sophomore from Pittsburgh, said he was interested in coming to Southwest Virginia because he felt like the hills, scenery and general feel would be similar to his home area. Kaitlyn Wong, a sophomore from Long Island, N.Y., worked at an outreach center in the Empire State, where the poverty struggles there really touched her. She said her grandparents struggled to get by when they came to the U.S., so she understands and has sympathy for what people are going through.
Bridget McClain, a sophomore from Springfield, Illinois, has been on several service trips, including volunteer work for a medical clinic in Nicaragua. There are no mountains in Springfield and she wanted to see a new area. Abby Ricca, also a sophomore from Illinois, has also done a lot of service work and she was excited to visit a new area in Southwest Virginia.
Rodolfo Pozas, a sophomore from Monterrey, Mexico, said he wanted to come on the trip because he wanted to experience an area of the country different than the big cities and usual tourist spots. It’s something on his Notre Dame bucket list and it’s nice to play a part in giving something back, he said.
During their trip to Carroll County and Galax, the Notre Dame students took time out Thursday to meet with the Hillsville Rotary Club. Cary Simms, a member of the Rotary Club and also Chairperson of the local Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway chapter, said the group has hosted the Notre Dame students for about eight years now.
“The main reason that I think this service is so important, I love to work for the community, but really that is kind of secondary to how much I learn on these trips from all of you and from everyone that we’ve met,” Luotto said. “The folks from Joy Ranch really touched me, and it helps me as I’m thinking what my next steps are. We all enjoyed some mountain music and everyone learned to two-step. I’m just so thankful of how much I learned and we really appreciate these trips.”
On Wednesday, the group went to Willing Partners in Galax and packed boxes and helped deliver food for the organization’s food pantry. Wong said she really enjoyed that aspect, which she said made the group appreciate how fortunate they are.
“It showed the poverty cycle and how it is hard to escape because a lot of the foods were prepackaged and things that lead to harder health issues,” she said. “But it was really nice to see the people we were giving the food to and their gratitude as well.”
Simms said the group was planning on going to the Galax Soup Kitchen later Thursday to serve along with the Joy Ranch kids they had already met. The Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway wanted to make sure the Notre Dame students had plenty of opportunities to mentor the Joy Ranch kids.
“They really look up to them,” Simms said.
The Notre Dame students also did some painting of pipes and the entrance to The Blue Ridge Music Center. There, they also cleaned up the entrance of a hiking trail to make it more attractive to visitors, as well as other landscaping work.
Dr. Oliver A. McBride asked the students what they expected to see when they came to Southwest Virginia. Ricca said the class focused largely on coal, but she quickly realized this area is not centered around the natural energy source.
“There’s a lot here,” she said. “It’s been eye opening.”
Coming from New York, Wong said she was generally surprised at everyone’s generosity in this area. Everyone has been hospitable to the group, she said.
“I am from New York and people are different there. So it was really nice and refreshing to see everyone coming together and everyone bringing over dinner for us and helping us out when we should be helping them more,” Wong said. “Everyone is so friendly and that was really inspiring to me. “
Aside from an appreciation of the culture and a willingness to serve, the Notre Dame students also demonstrated a good sense of humor. Near the end of the presentation, Rotary member Dr. Jim Kilbourne said he and his family members would be coming to the Virginia Tech-Notre Dame football game next month. He asked the group what to expect.
“Probably a win for you,” Wong said, drawing a roar of laughter from the crowd.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN