22 Aug 2014
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Pleasantvillians Build Homes, Lives in Appalachia

34 adults and teens took a special nine-day trip this summer.

This time of year, it's normal to daydream about being back on a tropical island, enjoying a day at the beach or simply relaxing at a summer barbecue.

For 15-year-old student Evelyn Tocco, returning home from a nine-day sojourn this week had her missing the small town of Jonesville, VA.

"I thought it went by quickly," she said of the trip. "I wanted to go back, I was pretty upset [it was over]."

But, Tocco wasn't talking about a vacation—rather, she was referring to a mission trip organized by the  that involved spending a week building and rebuilding homes for impoverished families in the Appalachia region of the country.

"I wanted to go back and help some other people," she said.

Tocco, who will be a sophomore in the fall, was one of 34 volunteers to head to Jonesville, VA, as part of the annual  Appalachia Service Project (ASP) mission.

Pleasantville resident Gail Zarick has been involved with the ASP mission through the church for nine years and has been leading the initiative for almost as long.

"It's now part of the mission of the Presbyterian Church to support the ASP mission," she revealed. "[ASP]'s mission is to help eradicate poverty in central Appalachia with its home repair mission."

The church, said Zarick, invites its members, as well as anyone from the community, to participate in the annual mission trips that involve four days of traveling (two in each direction) and five solid days building and re-building homes in the poverty-stricken region.

"We always seek to invite as many teenagers as we can to go on this mission trip every summer," she explained.

This year, more than 20 local teens volunteered in the mountainous part of the country that often leaves volunteers without cell phone or internet service.

From July 17-24, the group of volunteers took the 13th annual trip for the church, which Zarick said is made possible through donations from local businesses and families.

"We raised all the money not only to transport 34 volunteers there and back, but also enough to give to ASP so they can purchase building materials," she said of the almost $25,000 in donations the church received his year.

"This year, we worked on five different houses and got to meet five different families," continued Zarick. "We made some significant home repairs during the week we were down there."

Tocco got involved with the annual trip through her father, Rich, who experienced his third ASP mission this summer.

"My dad has been working with ASP for a couple of years and he was saying a lot of good things about it," she explained. "I thought it would be really fun to do and I just got excited about it."

Rich Tocco has been a member of the Church since 1997 and first went on an ASP mission trip in 2002.

"It was two weeks before they were going and an adult had dropped out," he said. "The church asked if anyone could scramble and make that trip...I've been hooked ever since."

Every year, the volunteers head to a different part of Appalachia, where they meet new families and work with them to make their homes "warmer, safer and drier," according to Zarick.

"The physical part ranges from digging foundations to shoveling gravel," said Rich Tocco. "If you go later in the summer, you tend to do more finish work."

This year, Zarick said one home the group worked in this summer had a completely uninsulated kitchen, which made it very expensive to heat during the colder months.

"That's pretty typical," she said. "They have huge heating bills they might still be paying off the following summer. We've seen this happen over and over again. If we can insulate and make it weatherproof, it's not only a more healthy environment, but it saves [them] money."

Evelyn Tocco said she participated in some skill-building days before heading on the trip this year to prepare for the work ahead.

"I learned some things before we went," she said, and once in Jonesville, "We built a new ceiling and floor inside the sunroom. We also put some underpinning around the porch and fixed up the roof." 

While the work can be physically draining (Rich Tocco said they often work in 100-plus degree weather), the volunteers are addicted to the feeling of being appreciated so much by the affected families.

"I really enjoyed seeing the famlies and seeing how they really appreciated when we were there," Evelyn Tocco said. "They were so positive when we were down there."

Zarick said seeing the number of young children who are impacted is especially rewarding.

"There was a 7-year-old little boy who had a birthday while we were down there," she recalled. "Some of our younger church kids put together a care package of little toys for him in a Ziploc bag. When he opened up the toys, his face just lit up wih delight. It didn't take much to turn his day into a very happy day."

The group also enjoys spending time with fellow ASP volunteers who hail from different parts of the country.

"I made a lot of friends on this trip," said Evelyn Tocco. "I really hope that I can do more than just another year."

Zarick said the church hosts information sessions about the trips every October or November, where volunteers talk about their experience and invite anyone from the community to learn more or volunteer the following year.

"There's just so many aspects to it," said Rich Tocco. "In that five-day period, you can really make a difference in someone's life. It's hard to do that in a normal day-to-day basis."

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