By Jeff Keeling
Whatever 14-year-old Cooper Reaves and his fellow youth group members from Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church may have expected when they traveled to Rainelle, WV for a mission trip in June, they got more than they bargained for.
Now, with the help of the entire church, the youth have spearheaded an effort that will give the citizens of the flood-ravaged town more than they likely expected from a group of kids from a few hundred miles away.
Reaves and his fellow students were helping repair homes in Rainelle, through a partnership with Appalachia Service Project (ASP), when it began to rain the night of June 23. It rained so much, in fact, that West Virginia experienced severe flooding that ultimately left more than 20 people dead, including five in Rainelle, and many families homeless.
Suddenly, the difficult conditions that poverty had visited upon some Rainelle residents had been dwarfed by the swift, sudden devastation flooding can bring. Reaves said the youth group initially wondered whether they would make it back to the church where they were staying, or wind up stranded at the house of a homeowner for whom they’d been doing major repair work.
Then the group members looked around at the devastation and realized how many of the people they’d met didn’t have homes to return to, Reaves said. “It was pretty hard, and heartbreaking.”
A day later, the group left the town – a day early, and emotionally moved by what they saw along the town’s main streets.
“We just thought, ‘these people are going to have to live with this for a long time, and there’s not much they can do.’ Once we looked around and saw, we just really knew the height of the flood and the real damage of it.”
After the excitement of seeing their own families in Johnson City wore off, Reaves said, the reality of what they’d left behind set in. The youth told their parents about what they had seen and experienced. Over the next few days, the youth mission group and the church as a whole decided they needed to help Rainelle and those devastated by the flood, Reaves said.
Eventually, the group learned ASP planned a massive project to build new three-bedroom, one-bath homes for as many Rainelle residents as possible, provided they lacked insurance and sufficient means to fund the rebuilding themselves. The effort is modeled in some ways after the first “New Build” project that was borne of devastating floods in August 2012 just outside Johnson City, in Dry Creek.
In the case of “Rebuild Rainelle,” thanks to other funding sources, in-kind donations and volunteer labor, a monetary match of $20,000 is enough to build a new home – and ASP hopes to build up to 50 in Rainelle. Work began in August, the first completed home was dedicated Oct. 14, and 14 others are under construction.
In early fall, an individual donor who is a Munsey member pledged enough for one house – as long as church members came up with $20,000 for a second one. The youth, with their Rainelle experience still fresh, had limited fundraising experience, but decided to host a luncheon in mid-October and dedicate proceeds to the effort.
The effort gained momentum quickly, and by the date of the luncheon, a silent auction had been added into the mix. The result was nearly $12,000 in proceeds. Further motivated, the youth kept at it and by late October had been a pivotal part of raising not just $20,000, but $40,000, leaving ASP in receipt of enough matching funds to build three homes.
“You feel good, but I’m just really excited that we’ll be able to build three homes for people who probably thought they were never getting their homes back,” Reaves said. “That just gives me a good feeling in my heart, to know that we gave three (families) their home back and part of their life back that was taken away by the flood.”
Reaves said the experience in Rainelle has changed him.
“It’s really made me look at things in a new way. Before I went on the mission trip I would sometimes complain about little things in life. When I got back I realized I was just lucky to have a bed and a house to sleep in when so many people in Rainelle barely had enough money to get three meals a day and a lot of them didn’t have the things we had. It really just changed the way I look at people and the things around me and really appreciate it.”
To watch a video about the project, click here: Video
Editor’s note: Abraham McIntyre of ASP contributed to this report.