One volunteer-spirited couple from White Bear Township recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by traveling to the West Virginia part of Appalachia.
Thomas and Kathryn Kromroy spent their anniversary providing community service and friendship to some of the most impoverished populations in the nation.
The Kromroys worked with students in the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS), an alternative high school focused on providing education and opportunities to disadvantaged youth in Fayette County, West Virginia. The Kromroys are part of a growing minority of Americans who choose to combine volunteerism with travel in the United States and abroad. This was their fourth trip together as volunteer tourists.
Kathy explained: “I give what I can of myself and my skills and receive a great deal in return, including a more open mind and heart.” She is a recently retired plant pathologist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, who sometimes is able to use her professional skills but most often works with children of various ages in educational and enrichment programs.
During their service in West Virginia, Kathy encouraged and mentored students at Energy Express — a morning summer camp for youth living in poverty, held at the Beard’s Fork School. “Reading, writing, drawing and outdoor play were daily activities for the elementary school children at the camp,” Kathy said. In the afternoons, she participated in a Read and Feed project. Free bag lunches, milk and books were delivered to children living in communities most in need. “We spent an hour at each location reading with the children while they ate their lunch. Before leaving, each child could pick a book to bring home.”
Tom, who was an independent specialty contractor for more than 30 years, helped a student work crew rebuild a small home in the nearby town of Oak Hill. YouthBuild programs in the U.S. and across the globe teach low-income and at-risk youth construction skills and work ethic while helping to build affordable housing and other assets, such as community centers and schools. “Truly, the most important and powerful aspect of this volunteering is connecting with the people as individuals — working side by side, learning and teaching, sharing our stories and our friendship,” offered Tom.
Kathy and Tom said working hand in hand with local people provided an intense and personal perspective of the daily life — the struggles, as well as the joys — of life in West Virginia coal country. “We prefer to work alongside local community members in everyday activities to experience more of a place; and, if possible, do something helpful in the process. We actually make friends with people and learn something about their lives,” said Kathy. “For those who want to connect more personally than say, the beach bartender, this is a great way to do it,” Tom added.
The volunteer service program was organized through Minnesota-based Global Volunteers, a nonprofit, nonsectarian development assistance organization in special consultative status with the United Nations. Tom learned about Global Volunteers in 2006, and took their daughter, Anna, to Costa Rica on a service program. Following that life-enriching experience, Tom and Kathy served together in the Cook Islands, India and St. Lucia. This year they decided to try a U.S.-based program.
Global Volunteers has mobilized teams of short-term volunteers to assist this area of Appalachia since 1999. Fayette County, a federally designated empowerment zone, is one of the poorest counties in the U.S., where 22 percent of people live below the poverty line. It’s also home of the famed New River, one of America’s National Heritage Rivers, and the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.
“The local people we met and interacted with were friendly, mostly hardworking, and appreciative of our presence and interest in working with them. Family ties are strong, as is loyalty to friends and community,” Kathy reported.
“Volunteering with Global Volunteers differs from other travel in two major ways — most of our time is scheduled, whether it is project work, team meetings or meals, and we are part of a team with other volunteers with whom we live, work and share some of the same goals,” Tom explained.
Volunteers have time at the end of the workday and on weekends to enjoy the recreational, cultural and historical attractions that draw tourists to the area. Kathy added, “Our experiences with Global Volunteers are now part of who we are — as individuals and, in our case, as a married couple. Volunteering is one of our retirement goals, so it will help shape our annual calendar.”
Global Volunteers invites people of all ages and backgrounds to serve in this unique way — to give back and make a genuine difference by working with and learning from and about local people in their community.
The fixed tax-deductible service program contribution covers three meals each day, community hotel lodging, local transportation, medical and emergency evacuation insurance, a trained team leader and project materials. Airfare and visas are extra and can be tax-deductible.