“Appa” is a Boston College buzzword. Most students have either been, or have friends who have been, on an Appalachia service trip. It is spoken of often, but for those of us who have only seen the Instagrams, we ask—what is Appa?
Appalachia Volunteers is BC’s alternative spring break program. Located on the first floor of McElroy Commons, Appa is a student-run service organization. A council of 14 students along with a campus minister and graduate assistant organize the program. The council is responsible for booking the sites, coordinating weekly meetings, fundraising, and all other responsibilities that make Appa possible.
“Our mission is building community through loving, learning, and serving those in the Appalachia and beyond,” said Kat Clarke, Appa Co-Head Coordinator and A&S ’15. “This year we are serving 27 different sites.”
This March, Appa will travel to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina. While they have been traveling to their Virginia sites for almost as long as Appa has been around, this year will be the first year in a while that Appa returns to Kentucky.
“Appa used to go to Kentucky, but hasn’t in the recent past,” Clarke said. “This year we are sending trips to Big Creek, McKee, Lexington, and Elizabethtown, Kentucky.”
Unlike many volunteer organizations at BC, there is no application process to join Appa. “Anyone who wants to join and completes the program requirements on time can be a part of Appa,” Clarke said.
With this, Appa has grown tremendously over the past few years. Due to this growth, Appa has expanded beyond just the Appalachia region and into the Atlantic region as well. This spring, roughly 380 BC students will be participating in the program, more students than have participated in the past few years. Students are randomly assigned to their location and group, which they find out in the months leading up to the trip, which will last the entirety of spring break.
Each individual trip is run through a different program, which students are allowed to choose a preference for prior to the trip. Many of the Appa trips are run through Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, Christian housing ministry. Habitat comprises a community of volunteers that builds and repairs houses in locations all over the world.
Appa also offers community based trips that are not entirely based on construction in the same way that Habitat is. These programs are run through different community organizations, such as Volunteers for Communities in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. These programs focus on different jobs in the community such as raking leaves, yard cleanup, church cleanup, painting, and school ministry.
Appa volunteers begin preparing for their trip long before spring break arrives. Each week, the volunteers meet with a small group of other Appa volunteers. In addition to these weekly meetings, Appa volunteers must participate in a day of local service before attending the service trip, and write a reflection on this experience. Closer to the actual trip, the volunteers begin to meet weekly with the small group they will be traveling with.
These small groups become very close throughout their trips, often establishing long lasting relationships the students can carry back to BC. In 2014, Regina Noonan, A&S ’17 traveled to Union County, North Carolina as a part of a Habitat trip with Appa.
“I liked meeting and getting to know people from other years and backgrounds that I wouldn’t have otherwise met,” Noonan said. “Without our usual surroundings, we had a lot of improvised fun making a giant mattress slide, playing hide-and-go seek, and surfing on a mountain of cardboard.”
For many participants, Appa is about so much more than just volunteering in poverty-stricken regions. The program is largely a learning and growing experience. “Our Mission is to learn about the structural and social realities in the US that leave some people impoverished and marginalized while discussing the injustices that create entrenched poverty,” states the Appa Mission Statement on the organization’s website.
Thus, students take away far more than just the skills they use on their trips. There is a great personal growth aspect to Appa, and this is what makes the program so special. “The best thing students can take away from Appa is the first step toward a new outlook not only on themselves and their place at BC, but also on social justice and their place in the world,” Clarke said.
“Before, during, and after Appa I learned that service is more than just putting in a day at a work site,” Noonan said. “It is also about connecting with individuals and a community.”
Featured Image courtesy of Kat Clarke