APEX students enjoy the view from atop Mount Jefferson, overlooking West Jefferson, N.C., the first site in the Tarheel State to host APEX.

APEX students enjoy the view from atop Mount Jefferson, overlooking West Jefferson, N.C., the first site in the Tarheel State to host APEX.

Appalachian Experience Creates Community

Students serve greater good through SJU immersion program.

In giving, we receive. In receiving, we give. In doing both, we create community.

In 1993, that sentiment inspired 15 Saint Joseph’s University students to hop in a van for the 10-hour, 550-mile trek to Phelps, a small town of 1,000 in eastern Kentucky. Deep in the heart of Appalachia, those students spent their spring break in service for one reason: they wanted to make a difference.

apex logo

The spirit of those students lives on 21 years later with what has evolved into the University’s Appalachian Experience (APEX) program. The program has grown from the original 15 students to more than 500 students, team leaders and faculty and staff facilitators at 17 locations throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and, for the first time, North Carolina. The students volunteer for organizations such as the Wheeling Jesuit University Appalachian Institute, Habitat for Humanity, Appalachia Mission of Hope and Project H.O.M.E.S. Inc. in Neon, Ky.

Appalachian Experience 2014 Sites

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Plugging into the Power Beyond Human Engineering

In early 2015, Clifton Forge and Covington in Alleghany County, Va., will be abuzz with preparations for the arrival of SJU’s APEX students. These folks refuse to be outdone in hospitality.

Local volunteers, including six onsite resource people for the work week, will be rallied. A five-person committee will arrange housing, food and entertainment for the students. Churchgoers will plan their menus. Rev. Roger Bush, pastor of the Oak Hill Bible Church and coordinator for the local Total Action for Progress (TAP) board, will sort through project requests for pouring concrete steps, repairing porches, building decks and painting – inside and out.

In this part of the Alleghany Highlands, many local residents inherited their homes, but need either muscle or money to keep them maintained. “My eyes have been open to a broader concept of community service in the six years since I’ve been doing this,” Rev. Bush said. “Somehow through this experience, we plug into the Power beyond human engineering. I see new possibilities all the time for what else needs to be done to help the poor among our total area of about 20,000.”

The Broader Community of Funders

As Rev. Bush describes it, Saint Joseph’s students sacrifice in three ways: They give up their spring break; they raise their own funds to support the trip, a portion of which go toward local accommodations; and they “rough it,” sometimes sleeping on the floor.

The accommodations vary by site and a participant’s site is not selected but rather assigned randomly and announced through a “reveal” meeting. Different locations are made available to students returning the following year.

APEX students are backed by financial donors, such as Ryan Hicke ’99. Though he never participated in the program, the three-year orientation Red Shirt was familiar with various University service initiatives through his connections with other leaders. Ryan’s wife Theresa (McKenna) Hicke ’97 and his older brother Scott Hicke ’96 were involved in service trips as undergraduates. Now, Ryan and Theresa have sponsored APEX trips for her sister Maureen (McKenna) Carr ’03 and his younger brother, Devlin Carey ’14.

“I’ve always been surrounded by people who are better than I am; it’s humbling,” Ryan said. “But I’d like to think their compassion and generosity rubs off.” A senior vice president at SEI, Ryan contributes financially because he appreciates the importance of the program. Contributing is also a fitting way to give back to the University that is alma mater to “95 percent of our core group of friends.” He and Theresa maintained ties with those friends even during their 12 years living in London.

Reflections and Introspection

In advance of their spring break service trip, APEX students meet throughout the year for preparation, education and team-building, all of which lead toward the spring break immersion experience. According to Rosanna DeFilippo ’15, who was a leader last year and will serve as one of three student coordinators this year, the application limit is typically met less than two weeks into the fall semester.

“There’s a high demand for this experience,” she said. “This is a program that challenges us to go beyond what we deem comfortable, where we meet others we haven’t met before, including peers at Saint Joseph’s, and make lasting friendships. In this kind of holistic immersion, the facades are gone and people are often who they are at heart.”

On three evenings during their spring break experience, students gather to reflect on their time together, sharing responses to questions like, “Why are we here?” “Where are you now?” and “Where do we go from here?”

“A variety of students are attracted to this program,” said SJU Director of Campus Ministry Tom Sheibley. “When the week finally arrives, some can’t wait to get there and others are nervous about getting in the van. Many return saying, ‘I thought I was going there to work, but I received so much more than I gave.’”

As he anticipates putting another 300 miles on his truck next year to deliver more paint rollers, lumber and tools for projects in Clifton Forge and Covington, Rev. Bush is thinking exactly that.

– Valerie Asuncion

Putnam County, Tenn.

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Deer Lodge, Tenn.

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Robbins, Tenn.

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Maryville, Tenn.

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Jonesville, Va.

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McKee, Ky.

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Hazard, Ky.

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Neon, Ky.

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St. Paul, Va.

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Honaker, Va.

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West Jefferson, N.C.

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Floyd, Va.

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Roanoke, Va.

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Greenbrier County, W.Va.

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Alleghany Highlands, Va.

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Almost Heaven, W.Va.

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Lantz Farms, W.Va.

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Hawk Hill

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