What started as a way to get high school students in touch with real world reality is still serving that same purpose today, 25 years later, Appalachian Outreach is making a difference.
In the summer of 1989 Don Keele, Jr. was searching for a way to challenge students and yet alleviate suffering for others. As the youth pastor for the Madison Campus Church, near Madison, Tenn., Keele took six students to work restoring trails in the Smoky Mountains. Later that fall, he talked 13 more students into going to rural Kentucky to work in an area that had suffered extensive flood damage.
The idea caught on. Everyone was excited about this idea of serving locally and they started networking and making contact with families in Appalachia to help with repairs. The first four years groups went on three trips per year: fall, spring, and summer. The summer trip was geared for those in seventh and eighth grade.
In these 25 years Keele has served as the head of the team to make these mission trips a reality. He has only missed the 1994 spring trip due to a move to a new pastoral position. He moved to Washington State and served as the pastor at the Meadow Glade church in Battle Ground before he was called to serve as the senior pastor at Georgia-Cumberland Academy Church in 1999.
Keele says the other half of the Appalachian Outreach team was his friend Alan Craig. He went on the first trip as a parent. “Craig wanted to go and readily agreed to serve as the cook,” said Keele. It wasn’t until later that Keele found out that Alan really didn’t know how to cook, but had his wife, Janie, make all of the food ahead of time and then froze it.
From the second trip on, Craig had a new job as the construction coordinator going to job sites and ordering materials. He networked with the local people and merchants and for many he became the face of the Appalachian Outreach Team. “He was definitely the heart and soul of the trip that kept me going,” Keele says. Craig passed away February of 2012 and for Keele the last two trips have never been the same. “To say that Alan is greatly missed would be a massive understatement.” Keele added.
“Spiritual growth is more than building the buildings together,” says Keele of the outreach. The 2013 theme was “Keep Calm and Serve.” Keele’s goal is to instill in the students that it is actually fun serving Jesus. He wants to take kids out of their comfort zone and make service a part of their lives. Each night of the four-day outreach they have a two-hour worship service where the bulk of the time is spent re-living the days activities and helping students see their jobsite through spiritual eyes. Sharing is vital , growing those who give.
Destiny Cosner, who went on the 2011 trip, said, “Seeing how much God could accomplish through us, and being real during the worship times and having my eyes opened even more to what goes on. The worships really inspired me, and I learned so much throughout the trip.”
For the past 25 years students and volunteers from Madison, Tenn., Battle Ground, Wash., and Calhoun, Ga. have been serving together. They have repaired approximately 600 homes and spent over $800,000 of funds that the Lord has provided. Overall Keele estimates that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 students have experienced the Appalachian Outreach mission.
This past October about 65 traveled to Appalachia to serve on 5 job sites. Over the years they have worked on roofs, floors, built wheel chair ramps, decks and porches and done a great deal of scraping and painting. Keele has heard and seen it all in 25 years including a request not to kill a man’s pet rattlesnakes that lived under his trailer and took “care of them rats for me.” He has also baptized one parent, Steve Cole, who wanted to go on the trip mainly to watch over his daughter. Cole is now a valued long-standing member of the mission team and has an unbelievable ability to train students and pull the best out of them.
Andre Greene, part of the 2011 trip, said, “Making friends who have the same mind set as you. And working together with adults who encouraged and worked with you instead of against you and tried to put you down was beyond amazing.”
After Alan Craig’s death, Keele was forced to relook at the future of the mission trip. They had been hosting group sizes from 120-135 and working on 10-12 jobsites simultaneously. But after much prayer, it was decided that Madison and GCA would part ways with Madison planting a new outpost in Manchester, Kentucky while GCA stayed in Liberty, Kentucky and shifted gears.
Appalachian Outreach is taking a new turn and becoming a training event. Keele said this most recent trip, Madison trained students from Highland Academy partnering with Manchester Hospital in Kentucky. Georgia-Cumberland Academy students trained students from Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio. In 2014, GCA will be adding starter groups from two other schools. Keele says the training is a two-year process starting with 10 students and four to five adults and growing to 20 students and 8-10 adults before they are launched to serve in a new locale.
The goal is to plant numerous outposts throughout the Appalachian Regions of Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia over the next 5-10 years.
How long will it continue? “Hopefully until the Lord returns,” says Keele, though he also added with a grin, “but I’m not sure how much longer I can keep going.” Keele feels that God has not released him from this ministry. “I stopped fundraising in 1991. I told God that I would continue to lead this trip if He provided the money. So far, God has always provided the money,” said Keele.
Tamara Wolcott Fisher