River Forest family learns much on Appalachian service trip
Mike Connolly, Brian Connolly, Dylan Kolovitz and Liam Connolly took part in a service trip to Appalachia with St. Giles Parish in Oak Park. | Contributed photo
Updated: October 12, 2012 3:23PM
RIVER FOREST— For years, the national Appalachian Service Project has grown as part of the outreach ministry of St. Giles Parish in Oak Park.
It’s also become a family tradition for the Michael Connolly family of River Forest.
This year, Connolly, a 1978 alum of Saint Patrick High School, and his sons Liam and Brian, now in their freshman and sophomore years at St. Pat’s, were part of a week-long service trip to Eastern Kentucky in late July. They went with more than 200 student and adult team members from St. Giles.
Connolly’s wife, Natalie, and his older son and daughter, Austin and Bridget, have also taken the trip to Appalachia at various times.
“The kids around here don’t have much experience of what it’s like to be ultra-poor,” said Connolly, a commercial real-estate banker recruited by his daughter in 2007 because of his handy-homeowner construction skills. “Going down there shows them there are folks who aren’t as blessed as they are with material things. And they’re surprised sometimes when they realize some of those folks, despite all that, are genuinely happy. That it’s all a matter of attitude.”
The Appalachian Service Project has brought church groups around the country together in Central Appalachia to improve living conditions through home repair since 1969, when the youth mission was founded by a United Methodist minister in Bell County, Ky., one of the poorest regions in the country.
Connolly said St. Giles has cultivated its ASP team as a teen mission – led by adult volunteers ranging from doctors and lawyers to construction workers – for roughly a dozen years, increasing it from 20 or 30 members to a team that divides its efforts across three counties.
“It’s as much a social mission as a working mission,” Connolly said. “The idea is to reach out to these people and show them there’s someone who cares.“
The work component is considerable. Members of the St. Giles mission divided into teams to work on individual homes, repairing leaking roofs and gutters, insulating the floors of trailers and building porches, decks and wheelchair-accessible ramps, among other projects. Still, it has its rewards.
“It’s a nice feeling to help families that are in need and these really are,” said Brian Connolly, who went on his second ASP trip this year. “You can see poverty in Chicago, but this is something different. Many of the houses there don’t even have running water.”
“It was a very humbling experience in a way,” Liam Connolly said. “It opened my eyes to see how poor some people in this country are. Some of the people down there are literally living in shacks in the woods and the kids of the family I worked with had nothing to play with except a garbage pile.
“We’re not used to that. But seeing how gracious and thankful they were about the work we were doing was really touching. It made me feel there was a good purpose for being there.”