Some set off by plane. Others by car. And still others in a shared van. Their common destination, the mountains of Appalachia, where need wears a human face and tikun olam can be in short supply.
Waiting for them: a massive truck of donated food and other items to unload, a winding ramp to be finished for a man with handicaps, and multiple structures to fix, paint and spruce up — among other projects.
This was tikun olam powered by sweat, a few days of positive works and human connections earlier this month to honor the sacred Jewish value of repairing the world — a guiding Good People Fund (GPF) principle in both theory and practice.
“We are trying to make a little corner of the world slightly better, sooner, for some of these people,” said Peter Freimark, a GPF Board member and volunteer from Cleveland.
He was one of about 20 volunteers from around the country — including a delegation from Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ — who gathered in McRoberts, a Kentucky town of just under 800 people in a region stained by rural poverty.
Here, unemployment, economic stagnation and lack of social services and opportunity are not distant statistics, but day-to-day reality.
“Every trip to McRoberts gives me and all of our committed volunteers greater understanding of the unique problems affecting people living there,” said Naomi Eisenberger, GPF Executive Director.
“Beyond the physical things that we leave behind, the fact that we care and come back year after year is an indication that we recognize that these people are there and that we care about them.”
At one point, she joined Susie Duncan, a 15-year-resident, to help volunteers unload a 53-foot trailer load of canned food and other non-perishable items, plus household goods and personal hygiene products. The items will be distributed through schools, churches and community centers to those who need them, and also delivered directly to elderly and homebound people.
“To realize there are people in the world who care about us and our well being gives hope to a very cut-off community,” she said. “When you feel so isolated and that no one cares or is looking, and then The Good People Fund group comes in here and does things for people they don’t know, it restores faith in the goodness of people and what they can do.”
At one home, volunteers finished a job started last year by sealing a lengthy ramp linking a house steeped on a hill with the road below, easing the way for a wheelchair-bound man to socialize within the community. At another, volunteers helped a recently widowed woman clean and spruce up her home, adding brightness at a vulnerable, lonely time for her.
The June trip marked the ninth year that GPF, in partnership with Congregation B’nai Israel, brought a volunteer corps to McRoberts. Many participants – from high school students to seniors – have made the trip numerous times.
Andrea Levine of Short Hills, NJ, a member of Congregation B’nai Israel making her second trip to McRoberts, said beyond the hammer-and-nails projects on the ground there, people-to-people connections can be even more long lasting.
“We should all step outside of our comfort zones and help people we may never have met otherwise,” she said. “Year after year, relationships and trust are built where they never before existed and probably would never be.”
Steve Moehlman of South Orange, NJ, a GPF Board member, underscored the point. He described how a young boy in McRoberts followed him around and befriended him, sharing how he would spend the summer swimming in the local creek with friends and making birdsongs.
“His life may be difficult, but in every basic way, he is just a boy like any other kid anywhere else — and as deserving,” said Moehlman, who has made three previous trips to McRoberts and was accompanied this year by his 25-year-old son, Jesse, who has been going since he was in college.
“It is an immeasurably positive experience to create these connections, find out what we all have in common, and how we can all just help each other overcome the various challenges we all have.”
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Good People Fund