Student travels to Appalachia for service project

Lily Cowie, Staff Reporter

Young adults have many opportunities to help those in need, such as volunteering at a local food pantry or at animal rescue shelters. Students often choose the most accessible and easy volunteer opportunities available, but Leah Espinal wanted to help those whose struggles have gone unnoticed.  

Travelling on a mission trip to Knox County, Kentucky, Espinal wanted to help poverty-stricken families and people. Inspired by a class project, Espinal independently traveled to the Appalachia region with a group of strangers who would turn out as friends and helped people in need. Only meeting the other people in her mission group once, unafraid and eager for the trip. Driving in a van to Appalachia for six hours with a group of strangers, Espinal arrived in Barbourville, prepared for a week of helping others.

Learning about issues that affected the Appalachia region, senior Espinal developed a passion for Appalachia in her social issues class.

“The issues in this region are often forgotten because it is so isolated. I know it sounds crazy, but I was and still am incredibly obsessed with Appalachia,” Espinal said.

With her newfound interest in the region, she began to do extensive research in her own personal time. She mentioned that she read many books on the region, watched documentaries, and listened to music about the culture. Espinal talked about Appalachia at home and school, expressing her passion for the region and the struggling people living there. Espinal’s parents, Eric and Sue Espinal, responding in a  joint email, stated they felt very proud of Espinal’s desire to help others. They mentioned that Espinal researched different volunteer opportunities in Appalachia on her own and found the Appalachian Service Project.  

“The Appalachia Service Project decides where each group is needed the most and places them there,” Espinal said.

After talking to the leader of the Appalachia Service Project, she got permission to tag along with a group from the nearby Hudson United Methodist Church.

“We are very proud of Leah’s desire to help others and are excited to see what the future holds for her,” Espinal’s parents said.

Arriving in the town of Barbourville, Espinal and her mission group settled in, and she felt eager for the next day. The next day, they drove around looking for places they would make the biggest difference. Espinal, along with the other volunteers, began to build stairs for an elderly woman.

“Everyday was just more work moving toward completing the floor and porch,” Espinal said.

Working every day on the project, she was able to develop relationships with her other volunteers. Espinal mentioned she connected with the locals.

“They did not have much but they were grateful for what they did have,” Espinal said.

When the last day came, the group finally finished the porch they started building a week earlier.

“We had grown so close with [the elderly woman] throughout the week and seeing her in tears because of what we had done moved all of us in such a monumental way,” Espinal said.

Packing up and getting ready to return home, Espinal experienced many emotions. She felt sad to leave, but she left with a better understanding of how struggling families live.

“It was a powerful mission trip. My perspective had shifted. I realized that people don’t need much to live as long as they have a positive point of view,” Espinal said.

Learning about herself and about the lifestyles of those struggling in need, Espinal left Appalachia with a new outlook on life. She recommends this trip and encourages people to pay attention to the unnoticed struggling lives in communities.