There was a massive truck of donated food to unload, a long and winding ramp for a man with multiple handicaps to be built, and structures to fix, paint and spruce up – among other projects. Plus, just visiting with people.
So when nearly two dozen Good People Fund (GPF) volunteers – many of them from Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, and others from Ohio and California and other states – arrived in McRoberts, KY, earlier this summer, the to-do list was set, teams were created, and the work began.
This was tikkun olam of the down and dirty sort – an elbow greased and sweaty few days of good works to honor and practice the sacred Jewish value of repairing the world – a guiding GPF principle.
“We are trying to make a little corner of the world slightly better, sooner, for some of these people,” said Peter Freimark, a volunteer from Cleveland and a GPF Board member.
For sure, this town of about 1,000 people – in the heart of Appalachia – suffers the sort of poverty that marks the greater region but is often overlooked. Walk the town and unemployment, economic stagnation and lack of social services and opportunity appear not as distant statistics, but rather as human faces.
“We are all familiar with urban poverty, but rural poverty is a completely different type of animal,” said Naomi Eisenberger, GPF Executive Director and Co-Founder.
“Every trip to McRoberts has given me and all of our committed volunteers greater understanding of the unique types of problems that affect people living there. 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.”
Susie Duncan, a 14-year resident of McRoberts and the designated point person there for GPF, described the relationship between the volunteers and the town as unique – a human-to-human connection in its most benevolent form.
“What they do here means more than they could even imagine,” she said. “Most families here live paycheck to paycheck, trying to figure out whether to feed their children or pay the electric bill. To realize there are people in the world who care about us and our well being gives hope to a very cut-off community.”
It was into nearly every room and corner of Duncan’s house and a side shed that volunteers transferred a 53-foot trailer load of canned food and other non-perishable items, plus household goods and personal hygiene products. Duncan will distribute the items through schools, churches and community centers, and also deliver directly to elderly and homebound people in McRoberts.
Across town, teams of GPF volunteers were immersed in other projects.
At one home, a lengthy ramp began to link a house steeped on a hill with the road below, easing the way for a wheelchair-bound man to get from his home and circulate within the community. Members of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim, a synagogue in Lancaster, PA, later finished the job.
At another home, volunteers painted a badly faded structure for a recently widowed woman with no resources to make improvements. “This might brighten her outlook because there isn’t a whole lot of brightness in her life right now,” Duncan said.
This summer marked the eighth year that GPF, in partnership with Congregation B’nai Israel, brought a volunteer corps to McRoberts. The delegation grows each year, and many participants – ranging from high school students to seniors – have made the trip numerous times.
For Jesse Moehlman, 24, a University of Michigan graduate and member of Congregation B’nai Israel, this year marked a fifth trip to the Kentucky town.
“What keeps me going is the realization that this is meaningful work and it is making a real difference,” he said. “The town and the people are very familiar to me at this point, and I feel a visceral connection and sense of responsibility there. It’s very important to me.”
In an opinion piece in the New Jersey Jewish News this summer, Rabbi Steven Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel summed up how tikkun olam drives this annual service project in McRoberts, and indeed the broader reach of GPF.
“Hope and respect for others are the greatest gifts you can give,” he wrote. “That is a lesson sorely needed in these times.”
Duncan agreed. “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. If more people did this, the world would be a much better place.”