Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Runner's High Revisited: Life Lessons from Appalachia

I've heard you can get addicted to the runner's high. There is probably some truth in that, but I'll leave that to a biologist to explain. As a former runner, I miss that release of endorphins, that shower of goodness that convinces every runner they can go back and do it again, no matter how short or long, flat or fast, hot or cold. That being said, I've been able to pinpoint precisely what I miss most about running and it's not the runner's high. No, it's not the freedom of the road, or the breaking of that tape (maybe because that never happened). Though I miss running with friends and family, its efficiency and the independence that comes with running, what I actually miss most is "the climb." However, my past week in Wheeling West Virginia with the Appalachia Institute (out of Wheeling Jesuit University) revealed that I might find "the climb" ...and the runner's high elsewhere.
Almost heaven....West Virginia
I traveled with another teacher and six female students to Wheeling, a small city in the panhandle of West Virginia to participate in a one-week service trip. As an ethics teacher and an American Studies major, the struggles of the Mountain State were not unfamiliar to me. Rural poverty, underemployment, exploitation of this rich land's natural resources, environmental degradation and the effects of flooding are but some of the challenges this area faces. We traveled nearly 2500 miles to learn and to listen, to serve and to be served. We were not disappointed.
Learning about Mountain Top Removal, a way to extract coal—a resource for cheap energy.
One day, we served at the warehouse for Appalachian Outreach, Inc. Located in Moundsville, a vibrant town but 15 miles from Wheeling, AOI's website proclaims:
Guided by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit, the mission of Appalachian Outreach is to help relieve the burden of poverty and the loss of dignity suffered by the people of Appalachia who, through no fault of their own, struggle to meet the basic needs of daily life. 
We continually look for contacts in counties where accessibility and opportunity are limited and other charitable agencies are lacking or struggle to meet local need. We also look for contacts locally that will support the mission of Appalachian Outreach, therefore building a network where the dignity of all is respected and the love of God is proclaimed through prayer, word, and deed.
Through donations, AOI was able to secure what was once a Giant Eagle grocery store to serve as their storehouse. It is hard for me to adequately describe this space, as it was filled from top to bottom, front to back with donations that are sorted and organized and brought to places throughout West Virginia. Many people might see the material goods in this space and conjecture most of it isn't worth anyone's time. Not AOI—every donation is a gift intended to help the people of Appalachia meet their needs. And affirming the dignity of the human person means realizing that different people have different needs. AOI intends to provide for all of them. 
The AOI storehouse is cold in the winter because there is no heat and unfortunately for many, very warm in the summer because there is no air conditioning. The example of the full-time volunteers gave us the wherewithal to work hard and dig deep despite the high humidity and lack of airflow. Those leaders and volunteers were the faces of selflessness. We were met with deep and sincere gratitude for our time and willingness to help. We were made to feel much like the donations—a gift not to be forgotten. Before we left, Terry, a 71-year old volunteer asked me to send our group photo with our names written on it. I can't wait to send that.

The lead volunteers saw our group: two women and six able-bodied teenage girls and put us to work! One of our tasks was to move an entire shed full of donations into a truck, both of which were outside under the beating sun. Without any sort of breeze, the dust and smells made us uncomfortable. We loaded and we lifted. One of the girls tried to offer comfort in reminding us that we were getting in a lot of steps. We bit. 
In spite of his age, Terry put us to shame. He lifted the boxes we struggled to stack and made sure we knew how to pack everything in, so we could take as much as we could to the people downstate. Once we emptied the shed, Terry asked us to bring in the mattresses from inside the warehouse into this truck. With two of us per mattress, we carried and hauled what would be new beds for people in need. Some sort of competition emerged among the group and made it fun. We were struggling but we kept moving—we had to! 

At one point, I looked at the truck and wondered how we were ever going to fill it. But once we loaded up the mattresses, a vision emerged, we were going to make it and I realized I had been here before; it was the climb. Push through and keep going, because the reward wasn't unfamiliar. 
When we dropped the last mattress in, our group ran back inside to fan the massive fan that was blowing our way. One by one, each of us filed in, put our arms up in victory and our runners high set in. We smiled. We were glowing in sweat. We had a great sense of satisfaction, the kind that affirms human dignity....and feels like a runner's high. For me, it was a moment of grace. I hadn't felt that way in a long time, but I knew in an instant, it wasn't any different. 

Those who serve regularly will probably tell you this high keeps them involved. In God's greatness, God knew our mind, heart, body and soul long to be one. At AOI, all were connected.
At prayer that evening, I shared with my group that I no longer run. I told them I don't look at runners with envy. When I see the cross country team racing down Sunset Boulevard from Golden Gate Park. my gaze is never forlorn. I had so many great years of running; it's all good. But, from time to time, I really do miss the climb and yet, I found it and felt it that day is Moundsville, WV. I can probably find it in other forms of service to others that demand my mind, heart, body, and soul. 

Jesus wasn't lying when he told us the poor can be our greatest teachers. Thank you Appalachia Outreach, Inc for your service and for those you serve. 

No comments:

Post a Comment