Our small town sponsors a volunteer project every summer where 4-5 busloads of teens and adults travel to Appalachia to help with home repairs in some of the poorest counties in the United States. In 1995, a family friend came home from that trip at the same time I was returning from competing in the Special Olympics World Games in Powerlifting, where I had dead lifted 290 pounds. Our friend said, "We need you at Appalachia Service Project. Most of these high school students cannot lift a bundle of roofing shingles, and you can!"
The next spring I signed up to go as a CIT (Counselor in Training) since I was out of high school. When I make the trip next, it will be my thirteenth year working in Appalachia! I have been to many different counties in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. I serve as assistant leader of a workgroup of 5 teens and 2 adults. Ten of these workgroups make up a Center. I have dug trenches, painted rooms, insulated under a trailer, nailed siding to a house, helped to build wheelchair ramps, pulled nails from used building materials, and played with little children.
We ride in buses for two days to get to Appalachia (and then vans down there), and two more days coming back on the buses. I sleep on a small cot in a gymnasium with 50 other men. The temperature is usually in the 90's. We eat lots of grits, beans, and peanut butter and jelly, but we do get to enjoy Dairy Queen in the evening. I give up a week of vacation, and raise more than $600 every year to support our effort.
Some might ask "Why do I go?" It's great to help those less fortunate, and also fun to see another part of our country so different from where I live. Over the years, I have made lots of good friends from my town, and I know I have helped many teens understand people with intellectual disabilities a little better. One year we had an ASP Center staff person who was the uncle of a newborn baby with Down syndrome. He was astounded and so encouraged by seeing what I could do. Also I know that every year we are helping another family have a "warmer, safer, drier" (ASP motto) place to live. After my first trip, my group leader said to my mom, "I always thought we needed to help people like Jay. This week I realized just how much he can contribute." We young adults with Down syndrome do have much to contribute, and volunteering is an excellent way to give to others and to educate people about our abilities.