06 May Appalachia Voices | My Monkey See, Monkey Do
The summer after I was in Eighth Grade, I took a trip with my youth group. We’d been planning for over a year, fund-raising and working toward that goal of renting a cargo van and taking off from our sleepy New England town and heading to parts south for a week.
We were participating in a service project for a family in rural Tennessee. Our particular job was to install sheet rock and new floorboards in their home in the Appalachian Mountains, which was way off the beaten path.
To say it was a life-changing experience for me seems too trite, too pat. My world view, one I had been developing as a kid who had lived on three continents by the time I went to Tennessee, was modified once again. Poverty wasn’t limited to the slums of Sao Paulo, or any big city for that matter. It was clearly here too. In the States…The “Land of Opportunity”.
The fact was that some of the most beautiful countryside in our nation was hiding a dirty secret of poverty and dwindling-to-no opportunity. And I, a teen living in a Boston suburb, had forgotten what it was like elsewhere–how it felt to drive through an area struck hard by bad financial times, to see the soulful eyes watching you as you drive by in the secure bubble of your vehicle.
Separate, worlds apart, except…you are on their turf. You don’t belong. You have too much–far more than your share– and it just feels wrong to do nothing. I was thrilled to have this opportunity to give something back. This was something I could do, a kid, with my hands, and my heart, that would quite literally improve other people’s lives.
We spent our daytime hours that week in a family’s home, doing our amateur-but-serviceable construction work. In so doing, we also had to chance to truly connect with both the family, and each other. We talked, and ate, and worked with the family from 8 am to 5 pm each day. We spoke about our lives, compared slang, and shared jokes. I marveled when the youngest boy of the family showed me how to tie a piece of thread to a junebug’s leg, creating a little leash so you could fly it around in buzzing circles (and I plan to teach my own son how this summer, if I can muster the courage to actually catch a junebug).
There were moments that taught me other things, too. I cringed inwardly when the seven year old girl leaned out the window and spat out a juicy wad of tobacco–I considered the fact that while at home it would be unheard of, I could not react negatively and risk insulting our new friends. And I later felt secretly rebellious when, after hours I hung out with the guys from my group after dinner and tried chewing tobacco myself (FYI, I don’t recommend it).
Fast forward nearly thirty years…and I learn that my friend Jackie has her own connections to the Appalachian region. Because of her ties, because of her own youthful experiences, she started The Monkey Do Project. This is something I can help with, something I can do as an adult. With my heart. With my hands. It spoke to me–and so I’m speaking to you. Helping is easy. Got a bunch of travel toiletries from hotels? Send them to the Project. Can you get your hands on new shoes–shoes mean the difference between camp and sitting around all summer for some kids. Do you have a Paypal account? Even five bucks makes a difference. Monkey See, Monkey Do.
If not us, then who? I’m helping…
Appalachia Voice Margaret Barney is owner and blogger of JustMarg.com.