Come down off of Joppa Mountain, Tennessee, where Glenmary’s Catholic volunteer program is, cut across the valley, and you’ll soon be at Hines Creek Missionary Baptist Church. On this late spring day, Nicole Powers is helping at the church’s food pantry. A college sophomore, age 20, she’s among a group of 19 Ohio University students who are spending a week with Glenmary in Appalachia.
“I honestly came here just to try something new and kind of get out of my comfort zone,” Nicole says. “I came in with pretty much no idea what to expect!” What she found, she loved. “I love being around people and helping out, so it’s been really good,” she says.
“Seeing nature around the back porch and just connecting with God in that way—wow! His presence is just so evident here! It is so beautiful, it took me out of my college environment and just gave me time to recognize the beauty of that. Seeing the passion and the joy of everybody here, it just fills my heart and makes me want to do this all the time, all the time.” Clearly she is enjoying her Catholic volunteer experience.
Nicole and fellow students are spending the week under the watchful eye of Glenmary’s Volunteer director Joe Grosek, coworker Donna Turchi, and yearlong volunteer Jenna Spurlock, herself taking a gap year to be a “mountain manager” before graduate school. Group after group come, all year, to spend a week at Joppa Mountain, in Grainger County. They come from colleges and high schools in multiple states, working and visiting by day; sharing food, fellowship and prayer by night.
The food pantry at Hines Creek is one way for volunteers to serve a local need. (This connection to a local food pantry resulted from Glenmary Brother Craig Digmann’s outreach.) Donna, assistant volunteer director, explains that the pantry operates on the first Tuesday of every month. “People from the church come the weekend before and pack these boxes with commodities, and get all the bags packed so everything is ready to get started.”
Then, on distribution day, the Glenmary volunteers work alongside church volunteers as people in need of food come to this country church, sometimes lining the driveway. Nicole and others from her group, under Donna’s direction, load groceries from shelf to cart, and bring them to the front for church volunteers to distribute.
It’s a few hours in a rich week for Nicole and the others. Some will help with house repairs, or building the ramps that allow people who use wheelchairs to remain living in their own homes. Some will just spend time visiting with people who need company.
Some students speak Spanish, and will work among the large Spanish-speaking community here, many of whom also are in need of service. And the students will pray and reflect together on that experience each evening.
Will the experience change the volunteers? “I think so,” says Nicole. “I was praying with that last night. I was trying to open myself to whatever the Lord is wanting to work in my heart. We were talking a lot about how, in different Bible passages, Jesus will ask a question. We were talking about the loaves and the fishes.” Among the questions in that story, Jesus gives an instruction to his disciples, and really, to each of us: “Give them some food yourselves.” It is an invitation, even a command, to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Glenmary volunteers do just that.
This story first appeared in the Autumn 2022 Glenmary Challenge magazine.