I Built Houses In Kentucky For A Week. Here’s What I Learned.

Kelly Devine
May 10, 2016

Every year since I can remember — well, since 2008 when I was a freshman at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) — The Appalachian Experience, affectionately abbreviated “APEX”, has been a focal point of SJU. Now, you might be sitting there saying, Kelly, I have no idea what an Appalachian Experience is nor do I care.

Well, that’s what I thought too way back in 2008 but, I was proven wrong and eight years later I’m still participating. #THWND man…#THWND.

What is it and Why Should I Care?

To give you a little more background on APEX, every year for the past 22 years, more than 500 students, alumni, faculty and staff of SJU in Philadelphia travel – in a caravan of 12 passenger vans – to 17 different sites in five different states. The states are all in the Appalachian region and include Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. These people devote their spring break to serving with and for others. The participants of the trip fully immerse themselves in the region by learning the local culture and the daily challenges they face.

APEX is a highly sought after experience with the students. Slots fill up rather quickly. Luckily, they get a fair warning.

Didn’t You Graduate?

Now, how do I still get to be a part of this, even though I graduated four years ago?

Well, I got to be a facilitator a.k.a. the adult of the group.

On March 4, I began this weeklong journey with 28 college kids and one former college friend, also known as the other adult in charge. I was pretty nervous because I wanted to be like the cool mom that didn’t embarrass her kids too much. But I also wanted them to know I was in charge. It was such an odd feeling but I was excited for the week that was ahead of me.

Welcome to Hazard, KY

I traveled to Hazard, KY, a little more than 10 hours away from Philadelphia with a population of about 5,000. We stuck out like sore thumbs wherever we went but that didn’t matter; everyone was just so happy to be there.

We stayed in a basement of a church in a room not meant to sleep 30 people but certainly smelled like 30 people were staying in it. We showered at the local recreational center and got food from the local Wal-Mart Super Center.

It honestly was a bit like camping. Every day was a new adventure and we were along for the ride. The day would start with some generic brand cereal and a battle to get one of the last Capri-Suns. We would then pile back into the vans and drive off to our designated work site.

My work site for the week was a small home and the job was to completely redo it. I was in good company, with my student leader Caroline, 11 girls and one boy. Our tasks included power washing the outside of the house, painting the outside of the house, digging a ditch for drainage, tearing up all the floors, tearing out all the nails and staples, laying down new flooring and painting. Lots of painting.

Is There Wi-Fi?

Now being in the middle of nowhere with little to no cell reception was hard. You feel like you’re constantly searching for that bar to get in touch with the outside world. This made our first few days a little bumpy as we all had the habit of checking our phones. Whether we were checking emails, answering texts from Mom or simply trying to get on Instagram. I don’t think I realized how many times I use my phone throughout the day until I had 18-year olds calling me out about it.

So my student leaders decided to do something about it. They challenged our group to have smart-phone free days and to turn their phones off.

Sounds simple, right?


The amount of times I reached for my phone was nuts. I would grab the phone whenever I was near it. Part of me was just worried something would happen and the other was just out of habit.

I decided if I wanted to fully immerse myself in the situation, I would have to at least try. I didn’t turn it off completely because I was the adult so I had it ready in airplane mode in case of an emergency. Not only did this save my battery, but I also felt like I was 100 percent in the moment.

I learned that I can work a mallet like nobody’s business, that some college kids actually have their acts together before they graduate, that I can say, ‘that’s v coolwithout being looked at funny and everyone loves a good sing-a-long.

The carpenters and the college kids were teaching me more than my phone ever could. They were teaching me that sometimes the most simple things like hammering a nail correctly or giving someone a hug can really change someone’s day.

To elaborate on what a typical Appalachia week is like, a trip has multiple work sites depending on the area and what types of work participants will be doing. While working at the sites, there are experienced foremen and carpenters to ensure safety and that the jobs are getting done properly.

There’s plenty of work to be done such as things being moved, cleared, flattened, you name it. It’s all done with plenty of tools such as a pickaxe, shovel, hammer and of course a paintbrush. Everyone embraces mud, dirt and grime all week long.

What Happened When You Came Back to Wi-Fi?

Even though I was sad to come back into the real world, sad to be leaving a world where not wearing a full face of make-up was acceptable and a place where I had to pay for 30 people to eat (Shout out to the Chick Fil A in Virginia for letting us take over your restaurant and allowing me to start a tab – you the real MVP), I was fully prepared to bring what I had learned back to my everyday life.

There’s something everyone likes to call the APEX magic when you return. Everyone involved on the trip brings back the lessons they were taught, the new songs they learned and has a sense of unity with their group. Coming back into the real world is a wake-up call. Something I can safely say I learned is that everyone has a story to tell and therefore has something to teach you.

Also, I learned that my body is not in the same shape it was when I was 18. My 26-year-old back is still aching and hand calluses are no joke. Being the “adult” of 28 wonderful, hard-working and most importantly, hilarious college students is the greatest once-a-year job an alum could ask for.

Peace. Love. APEX.

Take a look at some of the APEX highlights via YouTube and Instagram!