Glenmary volunteers meet on ‘Toppa Joppa’

The program on Joppa Mountain in Grainger County draws teens and adults ‘to serve others first’

By Dan McWilliams

University of Notre Dame student Aidan Creeron sands down a railing on a handicap ramp at a house in Luttrell.

Jesse Butler, a wheelchair-bound resident of Luttrell, can attest to the benefits of the Glenmary Group Volunteer Program based on Joppa Mountain in Grainger County.

During the week of Oct. 17-22, a group of 12 students from the University of Notre Dame took part in the program, informally known as “Toppa Joppa,” and during the students’ time in East Tennessee they built a handicap ramp at Mr. Butler’s home.

The ramp “means a whole lot to me,” Mr. Butler said.

“I can get out and get to do stuff that I haven’t been able to do in a long time,” he said.

How has he gotten out of his house before?

“I haven’t,” he said. “I appreciate this group for coming and helping me out. They’ve been such a blessing to me.”

The Glenmary Home Missioners have had a presence in the Diocese of Knoxville for some 10 years, founding the parishes of St. Teresa of Kolkata in Maynardville and St. Michael the Archangel in Erwin, as well as the mission of St. John Paul II in Rutledge. The Toppa Joppa program started taking its first volunteers in January 2014.

“The Glenmary Volunteers on Joppa Mountain is a retreat-like mission immersion program for high school, college, and adult groups,” said Joe Grosek, Glenmary Volunteers director. “The goal of the program is to connect people with God, help them find Christ in others, and teach them to serve others first and put themselves second.

“Glenmary hopes that those who serve with us can experience the rich mission ministry of the Glenmary Home Missioners. While service is the foundation of the program, it also strives to develop community and to deepen faith through the context of shared experiences. Volunteers come not only to serve but also to learn about the rich culture and traditions present in the Appalachian regions where they serve. It aims to broaden volunteers’ understanding of the causes of poverty, oppression, and injustice—and how their life choices can impact these issues.”

Students Mary Harkins (left) and Lainey Teeters help finish a handicap ramp in Luttrell.

The volunteer program is for Catholic high school students, college students, and adults looking to serve in mission, Mr. Grosek said.

“Glenmary asks that volunteers be 14 years and older,” he added. “We have no age limitations and have had adult groups in their 70s and 80s.”

Short-term volunteers stay three to seven days on Joppa Mountain. Long-term volunteers or “mountain managers” serve for three to 24 months.

The Toppa Joppa facility is located about 45 minutes from Knoxville on 10 acres of property.

“We have one large building where the short-term volunteers stay and four ‘tiny houses’ for the long-term volunteers (mountain managers) to stay at,” Mr. Grosek said.

Mr. Grosek started with the volunteer program at the Glenmary Farm in Lewis County, Ky., before it moved to Grainger County.

“I was a long-term volunteer for two years and have been a lay volunteer director for about 18 years now,” he said.

Notre Dame student Patrick Buck and three fellow students were building a ramp at the home of a resident named Norman on Oct. 21.

“We’ve been busy the entire week. We’ve been doing a lot of home repair around the area,” Mr. Buck said. “We’ve been working on building some handicap-accessible ramps on homes. We’ve visited some homes in the area. We brought people some ovens, a full kitchen oven that we brought into the house, and some food. We’ve really just been meeting people and trying to help out.”

Service is a key component of the Notre Dame students’ visit to East Tennessee, Mr. Buck said.

Student Patrick Buck takes a drill in hand as he works on a handicap ramp in Luttrell.

“We’re trying to use the time we have and some of the skills we have to help make people’s lives better and also meet them and hear their stories and learn from that,” he said.

When the group is at the Joppa Mountain facility, “we do a lot of reflection up there and a lot of planning,” Mr. Buck said. “There is prayer—we pray before every meal. We pray before we go out to work. We pray when we get at work, and then we pray at the end of the day. We also went to Mass at St. Teresa.”

Aidan Creeron is another Notre Dame student who made the October trip to Joppa Mountain.

“It’s been great. I’ve been to Appalachia to do service twice before. I’m really enjoying learning about Tennessee and meeting the community members of East Tennessee and doing really interesting projects,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about my abilities as a worker in carpentry. It’s really nice to get to know the people of East Tennessee and just to go to an area where I’ve never been before.”

Meeting the people they are serving in Appalachia “has been wonderful,” Mr. Creeron said.

“We had kind of a nice little picnic one night with a family a few miles from Glenmary. They showed us around their property. They showed us their farm animals. They were very welcoming,” he said. “It was great to truly meet people who otherwise I wouldn’t normally have met. The hospitality of all those we’ve been working with and serving has been wonderful.”

On Joppa, “we cook up there. We do our daily tasks and chores. We have reflections every night. We sit around and talk. There’s time to read and free time to relax,” Mr. Creeron said.

Mr. Grosek “is phenomenal,” he added.

“He’s the most patient person I’ve met in years. I think all of us came in with minimal construction experience,” Mr. Creeron said. “Every time he is just friendly and always makes us laugh and is always extremely patient with us, especially when I’m sure he could finish the job much sooner than we could.”

Notre Dame student Mary Harkins was in her home state when she visited Joppa Mountain.

“I’m from West Tennessee, from Memphis. It’s been interesting to be on this side of the state and help people while taking our break to help people instead of doing something for ourselves,” she said. “We have a break from school in between the semester midterms, so we all decided to use our break to help people out who needed it and hopefully do some good work.”

Thirteen other Notre Dame groups served at different sites in Appalachia while the Joppa Mountain group was in East Tennessee, Miss Harkins said.

In serving the needy, “It’s been amazing seeing their joy and how happy they are with the little they have, and they’re just so thankful and eager to share their stories with us. It’s been an interesting sight,” Miss Harkins said.

Fellow Notre Dame student Lainey Teeters said her time in East Tennessee “has been a really great experience. We’ve done a lot of construction work, building ramps and stuff. We’ve also gotten to meet a lot of people in the community of Appalachia, and it’s been really nice to experience the culture, getting to talk to them and hear their stories and more about their lives, because it is so different from mine and anyone I’ve run into in my life,” she said.

The construction “is hard work,” Miss Teeters said. “We’ve built two ramps. Another group went out and transferred a lot of coal to people’s houses.”

Glenmary mountain manager Jenna Spurlock said the Notre Dame group “is a blast.”

Kyle Phan watches as Brooke Friedman drills a hole on a handicap ramp the University of Notre Dame students were working on in Luttrell.

“We’ve been doing a lot of hard work together,” she said. “We’re helping move a pile of coal from one man’s yard. He wasn’t able to use it because his stove is in disrepair, and so we moved it to another family’s home. We brought some food over to one family’s home and got to visit with them.”

Mr. Grosek said he was pleased with the Notre Dame students’ efforts.

“It’s been a great week. Hard-working group. Got a lot of work done,” he said.

The students did work that was continued by an adult group that came in the week of Oct. 24.

“We did a lot of prep work for handicap ramps. We have two more that we have to do next week,” Mr. Grosek said. “On Monday this group did a bunch of building to prep for them. Tuesday, we extended this ramp here at Jesse’s. Then on Tuesday, Norman came down. That’s the guy up there [on the hill above Jesse]. He said his deck was falling apart. Then on Wednesday we redid that ramp. It was really bad. It was a real bad ramp, and that’s why we are finishing it today. I didn’t think that ramp would be so bad up there at Norman’s. I thought it would be an easy job, and it turned out not to be.”

The group following the Notre Dame students was composed of people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, Mr. Grosek said.

Much of the work the students did was in Luttrell, a Union County town not far from Grainger County.

“We do a lot of work in Luttrell. A lot of our construction is in the Luttrell area,” Mr. Grosek said. “This week has been heavy construction with these guys because of the need, with all of the ramps and everything and the extra stuff with Norman.”

The work the students are doing echoes a Gospel call, Mr. Grosek said.

“I think we’re called to help the needy throughout the Gospel,” he said. “Oftentimes, when you serve those in need, you usually get more [out of it] than what you do. It’s an opportunity to meet Christ in the others. It’s a two-way street. It’s not just always service to the person. They serve us as well by taking time and learning their stories and everything else.”

A woman named Candi started the ball rolling in Rutledge as one project led to another.

“Candi got a hold of us through St. Teresa of Kolkata in Maynardville,” Mr. Grosek said. “We did her ramp, and then we did the roof. Jesse saw us do that, and so he contacted me one day, came down and talked to me. Then Norman saw me work on Jesse’s, and he came down on Tuesday. I’m waiting for someone on the other side of the hill to come over.”

For more information on the program, visit glenmary.org/volunteer/glenmary-group-volunteer-program/.

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