SWAP: Sharing With Appalachian People


SWAP: Sharing With Appalachian People

By: Elaine Tomski


What are you willing to swap for? If you could trade just one week of your everyday life for one week discovering the richness of Appalachia and its people, would you be willing to do it? It’s definitely possible and you may be surprised by what you find when you SWAP.

SWAP is Sharing With Appalachian People. Using the efforts of volunteers, SWAP addresses substandard housing in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Participants work with and for local clients “In the name of Christ,” sharing the message of God’s love and building relationships that serve to enrich all involved. This mission statement gives just a morsel of all there is to learn about SWAP. Currently, they serve from three locations; McDowell County, West Virginia, as well as Harlan and Hindman, Kentucky.

I spoke with Pete and Lou Erb who are blessed to be location coordinators of SWAP in Hindman. When asked how they found themselves trading their place of residence in Mt. Eaton, Ohio, for one in Kentucky, they describe the process as God directed. It all started when fellow worshippers at Orrville Mennonite Church read about a SWAP opportunity in the Sunday bulletin and remarked, “That sounds like you two!” It’s true Pete and Lou have wanted to serve together in missions since before they were married. However, because Pete was co-partner of a construction business, going to Appalachia during the summer months didn’t seem possible. There were actually five different problems standing between the Erbs and the opportunity to serve on the 2015 summer staff. But, is there anything too hard for God? Pete says, “God paved the way,” so he and Lou were soon on the road to Elkhorn, West Virginia.


Imagine having to sit in a recliner chair under piles of blankets because your walls are without insulation. Now add in the use of kerosene heaters, and soon the living room ceiling and walls are blackened with soot. This was the reality of one couple in Elkhorn. SWAP’s first priority is to keep clients safe, warm and dry. The whole crew, including Pete, Lou, and a group of kids from New York City, were inexperienced and volunteering for the very first time. Still, their job was to get Barry and Sandy’s home insulated and warm. The crew got a good start that first week of the summer. They also worked to make the home safe, which meant youth crawling under the dwelling to place cement blocks for much-needed support. This was a project New York City kids could never have imagined.

Week by week different SWAP crews worked on Barry and Sandy’s home. God gave what was needed at just the right time to get the job done. With limited resources, insulation was applied and the blackened interior walls were replaced with new drywall. By the end of summer, when all the money and materials were gone, the remaining black ceiling looked even worse than before because of the contrasting new, bright walls. Pete and Lou said to each other, “How can we leave this room halfway done?” Just then they heard a knock at the door. And what do you suppose God provided? A neighbor who came to say, “We just finished remodeling our family room. Can you guys use any drywall?” Lou tells, “I was over there in five seconds and guess what? They had the exact amount needed to finish the project.” In addition, “It was truly a God-thing that summer because the local supervisor suffered a heart attack and Pete’s 30 years of construction experience was absolutely needed,” says Lou. God does provide.

June of 2016 found Pete and Lou serving as new location coordinators in their current town of Hindman, Kentucky. The prior February, a snowstorm had caved in the roof of Robert and Liz’s mobile home and the Red Cross had covered the hole with a blue tarp. After living that way for five long months, many volunteers showed these homeowners someone cares. They put on a new roof and painted the trailer.  Lou says, “We saw transformation happening in people. In just a few weeks’ time change happens to all the people involved in SWAP as stories and lives are shared.”



Appalachia has been affected by both the success and failures of the coal mining industry. Since the 1970’s, the coal mines have been either a boom or a bust. One SWAP client, like so many other Appalachians, is a hardworking man without decent job opportunities. Two times, Barry has been employed in the coal mine and two times laid off. Two times he purchased a car to drive to the mines and two times he had to turn a car back in when the paychecks stopped. Finally, he travels an hour away to work at Walmart. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to work, but that there is no work available where he lives. Therefore, because of an impossibly tight budget, houses are often substandard. Some people have the notion that many folks in Appalachia live on welfare and don’t want to work. In reality, the economy makes it difficult for hard-working people to find and keep jobs. Here’s an interesting note and also a devastating reality. Due to the ups and downs of the coal industry, SWAP’s West Virginia McDowell County, which was once named the richest county in the United States, has recently been tagged the poorest.

Besides helping with home improvements, a SWAP volunteer has the opportunity to learn the history of Appalachia. As homeowners share their life stories, volunteers come away with a new knowledge of the culture rather than a label. The Appalachians include all kinds of people, from talented artists to hardworking folks whose children receive a college education. Pete explains, “If you look beyond the stereotype you will see so much more. A lot of people I’ve met here have a faith that runs deeper than mine. I am honored to work beside them.”

Many factors in the Appalachian region, ranging from coal dependency to homes tucked away in hollows to families divided since the Civil War, have contributed to its people remaining isolated and independent. One of the aims of SWAP is to model how people can work together as a group to get things done. Brenda Yoder would love to see Plain people bring their wonderful example of working in community to the Appalachian area. She says, “I have been in missions to far away Africa and thought to myself, what kind of mission field could be in Kentucky, just hours from home? It was really eye-opening when I got down there to see the culture in the Appalachian region so different from ours.” As a volunteer last summer, Brenda learned much about Appalachia, first from Pete and Lou, and then from community folks including past SWAP clients who serve volunteers by sharing many aspects of their culture.  Hearing about their lives helped Brenda and the other volunteers also understand the reasons for poverty in the area. Although the area is impoverished, volunteers will discover generous people live there. Volunteers may think they’re coming to Appalachia only to give. In addition, they will learn how to receive graciously.


“We have learned from our own experiences and the experience of other volunteers how God provides,” says Lou. “God provides the skilled volunteer needed at just the right time for each project. If a house needs plumbing, there’s someone with plumbing skills already scheduled for the crew.” God knows.

Last year, a couple in their 80’s were clients of SWAP. When the crew arrived, they discovered a wife caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s. She was also caring for a 90-year-old relative with dementia. That’s a lot of challenge under one roof. During their week of home repairs, an 80-year-old woman named Alice just happened to be a volunteer on the crew. She was experienced at caring for her own husband who had suffered from Alzheimer’s. It seems Alice was there at just the right time to bring encouragement to that dear woman. God’s timing is perfect.

Last Spring, Eldred and Janice’s home was in need of repair. As it turned out, Eldred had been hospitalized and was due to return home in the middle of the project. You guessed it! One of the volunteers on the SWAP crew was a nurse. The nurse, along with other volunteers, demonstrated necessary home care skills to Janice. She learned and practiced how to move and care for her husband before he came home from the hospital. At every turn, God provides exactly what’s needed and the fulfillment of each need provides hope in the place of despair.



Besides providing basic housing needs, volunteers share their lives with clients, developing relationships with the people they serve. Pete says, “Both sides benefit from the relationship established and that’s the most important thing.”  Brenda Yoder found this to be true. Although she is usually sitting in an office chair, last summer Brenda found herself up on a roof. She and the singles group from her church served by replacing a roof and repairing a porch. The elderly homeowner also served the work crew. Although she was recovering from surgery, homeowner Peggy insisted on fixing lunch for the crew each day. So, Brenda and some other ladies helped her get lunch ready. They had a great time getting to know her. Brenda also related to Peggy on a deeper level since they shared in common the experience of raising a grandchild. She says, “It’s more than just a ‘Hi and Bye’ situation.”  It’s about relationships. She also says, “I came away with the satisfaction of knowing we really made a difference in Peggy’s life. I gave so little of myself and made such a difference in one woman’s life.” It seems Peggy made a difference in Brenda’s life, too.

When others care, the Appalachian people are raised up in physical, emotional and spiritual ways. So are the ones who care. Many people become SWAP volunteers thinking they will provide charity. Instead, they discover a God community. Do you recall homeowner Robert? He now invests in the lives of volunteers by providing music for the evening worship services. Lest you think you’ll be going to Appalachia to introduce people to Jesus, please realize most of the clients already know Him. Many have a faith that runs very deep and a hope that is placed in Christ. Lou has heard homeowners say, “It’s only through Jesus that I’ve made it this far.”  Lou also knows of volunteers who still correspond with the people they worked for. She has heard many volunteers remark, “I got so much more out of this experience than I gave.” Although volunteers work to build safe, warm and dry homes, it’s even more incredible to see how God builds relationships.

Christ Himself had a humble relationship with his disciples. He is our greatest example.

So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, “Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.”  John 13: 12-15


“SWAP provides a good opportunity for you to obey that nudge from God,” says Lou. “It’s a great place for God to stretch you.” Perhaps you’re feeling the nudge from God to serve with Appalachian people. Don’t let worries about time, talent or treasure stop you. If God is calling you to it, He will provide. Here are some of the details you need to know to volunteer.

Typically, SWAP provides week-long service opportunities to school, college, youth, church groups and other groups, ages 15 and up, as well as individuals and families. Volunteer groups of all ages are welcomed. (For younger participants, call the SWAP office for details.) The week usually begins on Monday evening and ends Saturday morning. Before coming to SWAP, your group will gather to study, pray and prepare for your service experience. While at SWAP, your group will participate in work ranging from painting and repairing porches to replacing leaky roofs, adding rooms and doing basic renovations. Ministry participants should be prepared to get hot and dirty while keeping a smile on their faces. Your group will meet several evenings during the week to worship and reflect on your experiences.

SWAP provides food and lodging once participants are on site. They pre-select all clients and work projects, providing building materials to complete the project. In most cases, SWAP will provide the necessary tools for volunteer jobs. SWAP staff will lead evening worship and study sessions. Evening sessions may include presenters from the local community, a locally-hosted dinner, or a cultural or music event. What will it cost? A week-long SWAP experience costs $335 per person. This amount covers food, lodging, staff support and materials for clients who cannot afford the cost of home repairs.

Please understand the week is not “all work and no play.” There are different opportunities to experience at each site. In Harlan, you will have a camp-like experience in a lodge with mountain top hiking opportunities on Little Shepherd Trail. In Hindman, the lodging is in an air-conditioned church closer to town, near a Dairy Queen, artisan center, and blacksmith. It also has the opportunity for elk viewing. Hindman is known for its mountain dulcimers, so in addition, if you serve there, you may have the opportunity to explore the Luthier where dulcimers are created. The West Virginia site in McDowell County is in the process of moving from Elkhorn to Kimball and will begin sending out work crews this coming fall.

Come with a willing heart to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Many others have done so before you. Folks have come to SWAP from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Canada. Those who serve come from many faiths…Catholic, Episcopalian, United Methodist, Amish, Mennonite…you name it! All kinds of people come. One summer the Aluminum Trailer Company from Nappanee, Indiana, sent their workers for a team-building exercise. Its management and labor force combined to create a SWAP team. People who had worked in the same business, but hardly knew each other prior to that week, are now friends. This summer, the company can’t send a team, but three of its employees are returning to serve on their own. That speaks volumes!

Are you concerned you don’t have the necessary skills to volunteer? You don’t have to know construction to do SWAP. Still, they truly appreciate anyone who can come with skills. Do you remember Brenda who came out of her office chair? She learned on the job. She says, “Pete does a lot of the prep work so it’s easy for people like me to have a job to do. He makes sure there is a task for everyone.” Perhaps it was Lou’s 10 years of teaching deaf Amish students in Berlin, Ohio that taught her to read people even before they speak. Brenda says, “She almost immediately could read us and knew exactly where we would fit well on the project. Pete and Lou are gifted exactly like they need to be to do the work they’re doing down there.”



Pete and Lou are grateful to God for this mission opportunity. Still, they experience many challenges. One of their greatest challenges is in determining who gets help. They make home visits to each family who applies for assistance from SWAP. This year they have 60 applicants. That’s a lot of need, for only 2 months’ worth of crews. That means some applications must be denied. Lou says, “If you are not available during the summer months, don’t let that stop you from expressing your interest in volunteering. There are some spring and fall opportunities at some of the sites.” Pete and Lou also have the task of matching the skills of the groups who are coming with the repair jobs they have scheduled. Pete serves as the project manager, determining how to use the resources and the volunteer skill levels on each crew. He usually has 25 people with serving hearts and ready hands needing instruction. Each week there’s a brand-new crew of volunteers, so Pete and Lou must learn, invest and love quickly. They need the scheduled daily prayers and devotions as much, if not more than, their volunteers. Perhaps the Prayer of St. Francis found in SWAP’s orientation packet gives the answer to all of our challenges.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Now there’s an amazing swap, wouldn’t you say? Our Lord has mercy on us. Surely, we can likewise show mercy to others.

Are you interested in Serving with Appalachian People? Do you think you would like to bring a group or volunteer as an individual? For more information and to sign up, please…

Visit the website: www.swap.mcc.org.

Call the MCC Appalachia office at (606) 633-5065 or fax to 1-606-536-5001

Contact by mail:

Angela Maggard, MCC Appalachian Office

203 Main Street, Suite 203, PO Box 460

Whitesburg, KY 41858, United States