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A Mountain Top View

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On a mountainside in rural West Virginia, the contingency of Mount Notre Dame High School girls made their way from the Big Laurel Learning Center’s large, rambling “main house” down to the woodshed. As two unbothered horses looked on, the gregarious man known as “Angel’s Dad” greeted the students with a cheerful and contagious enthusiasm then explained the large foreign-looking equipment before them.

They listened attentively while he described how to engage the log cutter’s blade, when to reverse it, and how far back to keep their hands when holding logs. He told them where and how to stack the finished firewood and kindling and made clear this fuel’s value in keeping the learning center warm. Advised that they’d meet Ms. Becky later that day, when they delivered wood to her further down the mountain, the girls put on their work gloves and got to the business of splitting and stacking hundreds of pounds of wood. Their laughter and buoyant conversation lilted through the crisp October air.

Big Laurel Learning Center is “a mountain community inspired by the voice of God among us” and a Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps initiative. It strives to promote healing and help through education, outreach and spiritual renewal in southern West Virginia, including Mingo County..

For a time, Mingo County made national headlines for the dubious distinction of being an epicenter of narcotic addiction, often considered a disease of despair. The girls learned about this despair and the economic disparity faced by residents from the manager of the community’s free thrift store: Of the over 5,000 counties in the U.S., Mingo County is ranked in the bottom 1% for household income. Jobs in coal mines can lead to injuries that lead to pain pill addictions and joblessness. Flooding regularly threatens those living in town, and both physical and digital infrastructure is spotty. Life there is hard.

Life there is also beautiful. As the students sorted and racked donations in the store, they witnessed the community’s strength and unity. There was nothing particularly special about that Friday afternoon, but the steady flow of donations processed through the loading dock was astonishing and a blessing matched by the customers in need—a young family found a car seat, an older woman chose a beautifully-knitted scarf and a couple left with clothing and a lamp.

Visiting the free childcare center, the girls heard God’s voice echo through the director as she recounted her path from client to director, where she is now positioned to help many. God’s goodness reverberated at the aquaponics center built over a reclaimed coal mine, where wastewater from in-house tilapia tanks grows vegetables—both fish and produce help supply the local food bank. And God’s goodness beamed from the teens, who eagerly looked forward to sharing God’s voice back home in a brand-new way.

This article appeared in the July 2023 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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