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Warding off cold winters in West Virginia

By Mo Scarpelli

For many Americans, a heated house is a necessity. If that means installing a new heat pump, so be it. But to those in McDowell County, West Virginia, Jack Fultz says even basic home repair is not a given – it’s a luxury.

More than 24 percent of family households in McDowell County make less than $10,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“They have no options. Our people have just enough money to get by,” said Fultz, founder of the non-profit group School for Life in Gary, West Virginia. “They have just enough for food, gas, utilities, with no extra money for home repair.”

That explains Carlisa and Donald Merriweather’s story. Four years ago, Carlisa moved into the house her mother had grown up in. Her new home was actually a very old one, dating back to before the 20th century. She never had the option to turn on the heat in her home save for small kerosene heaters in several rooms.

“In the wintertime, Carlisa would come down and stay with us because it was cold,” said Carlisa’s mother, Olivia Bell. “It’s not good when you keep the kerosene on overnight, it’s expensive and you have to watch inhaling the fumes too much.”

The whole neighborhood, known as the Gary No. 11 camp, was built more than a hundred years ago by the U.S. Steel Company for mine workers and their families. The house foundations were constructed with only a couple of feet above the ground, making them too low to install electric heating pumps underneath.

Carl Bell, Carlisa’s father, says the family had two options: they could build an additional room on the house for the heating pump and pipes, or they could hire a contractor and crew to install all of it in the attic.

“If you hire a contractor, you might as well give them the house,” said Bell. “It’s that expensive.”

Bell and a few family members decided to add to the house themselves, but found it hard to acquire the funds and spare time. The new pump alone cost more than $600, and Carlisa’s husband had little time after work to help Bell.

This is where Jack Fultz and his wife, Brenda, came in.

“Carl is one of the first guys I met when we came out here,” said Fultz, who moved into the unused Old Gary School three years ago to start his nonprofit company. “Carl and his brother would help us out at the school, they’d unload trucks and do other things.”

The school’s upstairs classrooms have been converted into living quarters for volunteers that want to help Fultz chip away at a seemingly endless list of residents like the Merriweathers in need of home repair. Experience Mission arrived at the school in early June and their first teams of volunteers, one from Greenville, North Carolina and another from Pennsylvania’s Panther Valley area, found their way through the misty mountains to the school a week later.

The teams then split up to take on different projects: some stayed at the school to teach and play with local children during a bible school program called Kid’s Club; some helped Brenda Fultz sort through cluttered classrooms in the school; and others set off to tackle construction projects. This included a team of five EM volunteers that arrived at Carlisa’s house, eager to finish what her father had started.

“It makes you feel helpful,” said 17-year-old volunteer Brandon Hefferfinger while on a break from laying drywall with his father and friends. “It’s not an off-the-wall, different thing to do, the jobs are very possible for anyone. These people just need help.”

EM has helped, by spending more than $300 on materials and by recruiting volunteers like 18-year-old Joe Folk, who believes that the quality of life for people of West Virginia is just as important as anywhere else.

“We considered going out of the States to do mission work,” said Folk. “But then we decided to help one of our own.”

Merriweather says she is grateful for that, as she was dreading another cold winter with her 7-month-old son. Jack added her house to the his list of repairs almost two years ago, and with the help of EM, finally got enough hands to do the job.

Having EM crews work comforts Merriweather, who says she prefers EM because she can trust the crew.

“You don’t have to worry about ‘em out here fussin’ and cussin’ and fightin’ or taking anything,” Merriweather said. “I was glad when they came, relieved.”

Jack Fultz and EM volunteers try to spread the message of Christianity through
this kind of help all summer long in McDowell County, one of the poorest counties in the country.

“Most Christians just go to church,” said Fultz. “The Bible says, ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits,’ and this is just some of the fruit we can provide, by giving time and hard work. Others will notice because these houses beautify the community.”

Experience Mission is offering Summer 2009 mission trips to West Virginia and other locations in the U.S. and abroad. Visit www.experiencemission.org or call  360-732-0986  to learn more.

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