August 9, 2021

Kentucky Work Week kindles faith and hope in Beattyville

Kentucky Work Week

By Linda Harvey

When historic flooding ravaged Beattyville and other communities across Eastern Kentucky at the beginning of March, the need for outside help was beyond question, such as when the national emergency response team of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul traveled to the area to help people with FEMA applications and supplemental help for damaged or destroyed homes. But help from outside their community is not something the people of Beattyville associate with crisis. Rather it’s a regular occurrence, one that signals lasting relationships.

The volunteers of Kentucky Work Week have for decades made an annual trip to repair and rebuild homes for people in Beattyville, KY and the surrounding area of Lee County. In late July, 35 volunteers made the trip. And while volunteers did some work related to the recent floods, their work is really about longstanding connections. Mostly from Pennsylvania and Ohio, the group dates back to the early 1970s, when its founder and leader, David Pastrick of Pittsburgh, and his wife were involved in the Catholic Family Movement and heard about needs in Kentucky by meeting some people from Barbourville.

“People want to do good but do not how to do it. Despite the amount of poverty, the people we serve have a relationship with God,” said Laura Kuntz of St. Mary, Pennsylvania, who handles the organization’s projects and finances. “Their stories give more to us than what we do for them.”

David Pastrick and Laura Kuntz
David Pastrick and Laura Kuntz of Pennsylvania are the lead organizers of the Kentucky Work Week, a decades-long effort to serve residents of Beattyville through home repairs and other building projects. Photo: Linda Harvey

Over 700 volunteers have participated over the 48 years of the Kentucky Work Week, with $1 million raised and 300 homes repaired. Pastrick and Kuntz are the two leaders who oversee and organize the volunteer teams. This was Kuntz’s 25th year.

“She does so much without fanfare and keeps all the information about our volunteers and the people we serve,” said Pastrick. “In addition, she has provided Christmas presents for families and obtained hundreds of donated prom dresses … to Lee County High School.”

Many of the volunteers are Catholic, and a sense of community, family and belonging that keeps them coming back. They are able to see and become involved directly with individuals living in rural poverty.

“Rural poverty is different than urban poverty. In the city, there are more accessible services that are closer, but in rural areas it is often very hard to get to services due to lack of transportation and other factors,” said DeAnna Koch of Canal Fulton, Ohio, who has been coming for seven years. This year she was joined by her two adult sons, past participants Tanner and Nash, and her daughter, Natalie, age 14, who made the trip for the first time and was not the only young person involved.

Jackie Prosise, a parish youth minister from Canton, Ohio, has been coming for 21 years and brought 20 youth with her this time. “They are learning people’s stories and various skills such as carpentry that will help them with their own homes in the future,” she said.

In addition to their time and some heavy-duty work the volunteers each give $350 for building supplies purchased in the local community and their expenses while there. For the past seven years, they have slept in Queen of All Saints Catholic Church in Beattyville, but the March flood damaged the church. Queen of All Saints is itself a hub of assistance for the community, with a thrift store — S.A.M. Clothing Store, Sisters’ Appalachian Mission — operated by parishioner Phyllis Gardiner next to the church.

Phyllis Gardiner
Parishioner Phyllis Gardiner operates the S.A.M. Clothing Store, a thrift store operated next to Queen of All Saints Church in Beattyville. Photo: Linda Harvey

The home and deck of pastor Father Mark Ouma, located across from the church, was greatly damaged in the flooding as well, and rebuilding the pastor’s deck was one of six home repair projects in and around Beattyville that Kentucky Work Week tackled on their July trip.

Other projects included installing new flooring in Emma Watkins’ trailer, which had holes in it. Volunteers also rebuilt the roofed porch and fixing the electrical wiring in the kitchen of Gracie Deaton, whose home is about a mile down a gravel road.

Deaton porch reconstruction
Volunteers rebuild the porch of Gracie Deaton’s home in Beattyville, Ky., part of the Kentucky Work Week, which made its annual visit to the area in late July. Photo: Linda Harvey

“I came back to this area because my infant child and 20-year-old son who was killed in 1989 were buried in [the family cemetery in the] back of my home,” Deaton said.

While perennial and supportive relationships with entities outside the diocese are a common lifeline for Catholics communities in Appalachia, John Wagner, a builder who serves on the building commission of the Catholic Diocese of Lexingon, says that the region needs more groups like Kentucky Work Week. Wagner is currently working on the rebuilding of the pastor’s house and overseeing the rebuilding of Queen of All Saints Church.

Diana Spurlock, transit office manager for the Daniel Boone Community Action agency, who guides the team to individual residents with needs, sees the local benefit of a group like Kentucky Work Week. “The volunteers not only repair homes, but many times repair a broken spirit of someone in need. They do more than build porches and ramps within this community; they build a contact and friendship for many years to come,” she said.

Emma Watkins. Photo: Linda Harvey

The planning of each project falls to Dave Kronenwetter, an electrical contractor and plumber from Pennsylvania, and Bob Doerr from Ohio. The two visit sites, plan each job and indicate what supplies will be needed.

“We get the homes stabilized inside and out. It’s not what we do, but how to get the job done,” said Kronenwetter, known as “Super Dave,” who has come for about 30 years.

Doerr, who has been making the trip for 27 years, finds his faith strengthened from the encounter. “When we come together, you can see the instrument of God working through the adults and kids to get things done right in front of you. It’s amazing how it all comes together in a week.”