When school lets out for the summer, most high school students spend their days relaxing with friends and enjoying time away from the hustle of the academic year. For 16-year-old Grace Ditch, summer vacation is starting much differently.
Beginning Monday through June 14, Ditch and six other students from St. Charles Episcopal Church will rebuild and repair homes in poverty-stricken communities surrounding Prestonsburg, an eastern Kentucky town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Contact information ( * required )
The program, Mission in the Mountains, is coordinated by St. James Episcopal Church in Prestonsburg. Ditch, who participated in 2012, said her youth group sleeps in the church sanctuary. Then, she said, church members make arrangements for the group to help local residents in need.
"You don't really know exactly what you're going to be doing, or where you're going to be," Ditch said. "Some of the jobs seem kind of daunting at first, but once you start doing them, it's a really fun experience. You just have to have an open mind."
This is the St. Charles Episcopal Church youth ministry's 13th year participating in Mission in the Mountains, but the trip is a first for four students: Shannon Foran, 15; Mandalee Manning, 16; Rachel Peyton, 16; and Johanna Matthiesen, 18. The other three -- Ditch, 18-year-old Ian Rhead, and 17-year-old Avery Manning -- are returning missionaries.
The students attend Geneva, St. Charles North and St. Charles East high schools and Elgin Academy.
Liz Ryan, youth director at St. Charles Episcopal Church, said the communities that the missionaries work in are mostly coal industry towns with poorer residents.
The homes and trailers are run down. Oftentimes, parents are too sick or too busy trying to provide for their families to fix the condition of their homes, she said.
"One of the things that we profess to in our religion is that we respect the dignity of every human being," Ryan said. "When you go to someplace where the need is so evident, it changes your perspective on the world."
Ryan, who has been on every trip, said no two trips have been the same.
With the help of adult chaperones, students have helped with a variety of projects from flood recovery to mold removal to gutter replacement.
She said they have repaired roofs and built ramps for wheelchair accessibility.
The group also cleans, picks up garbage or paints walls -- smaller projects that residents can't afford or simply don't prioritize.
On her last trip to Prestonsburg, Ditch recalls bleaching and repainting a woman's walls and ceiling that were stained from years of water leakage. The woman, who lived alone with her two dogs, was thrilled with the improvement. She didn't have the money or the energy to repaint the walls herself, Ditch said.
"That's what she sees every day -- that's her home," Ditch said. "Just fixing up smaller things like that, whether it's a big or a small project, really does have a huge impact."
Though the projects are different every year, what remains consistent is how hard the missionaries work, Ryan said. Every day, they leave at 8 a.m. and work on projects until 4:30 p.m., only taking breaks to eat lunch on site.
Holly Parks, member of the St. Charles Episcopal Church and a coordinator of the mission trip, said the labor can often be grueling.
From cutting wood and nailing boards to putting up deck railings and tearing down walls, the missionaries leave Kentucky with some "impressive skills," Parks said.
"Their confidence just booms," she said. "When they see that they can do this stuff, it's pretty amazing."
Ryan said the missionaries receive some training before the trip so they know how to use power tools and equipment, but they often have to learn as they go.
"Until you get there, you never really know what you're going to be faced with," Ryan said.
Between the cost of transportation, equipment and tools, Ryan said the mission trip generally costs between $5,000 and $6,000 each year, about half of which is spent on materials.
To offset some of these costs, St. Charles Episcopal Church holds multiple fundraisers throughout the year. The money raised typically covers transportation costs and about two-thirds of the cost of materials. The participating students contribute the additional expenses.
Perhaps the best part of the trip, Ryan said, is watching students realize they can so positively impact the world.
"Those are amazing moments because you can see the wheels turning in their heads," Ryan said. "A kid will turn and look at you and say, 'I didn't know I could do this. I didn't know I could make a difference in someone's life.'"
Parks said many of the students who have been on mission trips return again and again, and some even become missionaries in other parts of the world.
"It doesn't stop after this," Parks said. "They continue to work, and they continue to be involved. It becomes a part of their fabric."