Stories from the Mountain

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I’ve always loved stories. At potlucks or family gatherings, I always wanted to sit with the adults. My parents would encourage me to go play with the other kids while the adults talked and I’d stubbornly shake my head and say “No, let me listen.” I’d never get bored with tales of the glory days from the older folks, or the shenanigans someone’s kiddos got into.

I don’t think I was entirely prepared for this community’s stories. I was expecting to learn a lot about building porches or stairs. I was expecting to get to know volunteers from all over the East Coast and Midwest. But after being hired to work at Mountain T.O.P (Tennessee Outreach Project) and starting training, one of the things I was most worried about was talking to the families in the community. It was one of the main parts of my job, to walk up to a stranger’s door and ask if we could help them with anything and then help get groups of volunteers complete whatever needs the family expressed. It seemed so intimidating and vulnerable to talk to people I didn’t even know.

But those families surprised me. At first, I tried to keep it all business, just talk about their need and get out of there. I was so focused on my long to-do list and all the projects, I forgot the importance of listening. I’d greet a family and start talking about details: “What size porch do you need? Will it need a roof? Where would you like the stairs to go?”

Then, a sweet home-bound lady would stop me and say “Slow down, hon. Take a seat, sit a spell.”

And then we’d just chat. She’d tell me about her kids and grandkids and great-grandkids. Her teenage great-grandson was living with her, partly to take care of her and partly for her to take care of him. She’d tell me how this community has changed so much. She’d talk about how her daddy and brothers used to keep chickens and have a huge garden on the property, how foreign that is to me since I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. I’d listen to her stories and gradually remember how valuable they are.

It’s so easy to forget. I forget to be still. I forget to listen. It’s taken me an entire summer to realize the importance of listening and not just meeting a family’s expressed physical need. It’s easy to focus on how this man in a wheelchair really needs a safe way in and out of his home. But, that guy has other needs too. He has so much to offer and it’s not an inconvenience to just listen to his tales.  

One woman I visited asked me to help her pick blueberries from the overgrown bushes in her backyard. As we were plucking berries, she just starts talking. She tells me about her grown kids and how proud she is of them. She tells me about the history of the area, it used to be a big coal-mining town, but now the community has struggled since the country has turned away from burning coal.

Another lady was so welcoming and full of life, even though she was looking after her grandson because her daughter was still in the hospital after a car accident. Her positivity really impacted the volunteers working at her house. I was so impressed because this teenage volunteer took the initiative to talk to the homeowner, and I think that conversation was exactly what both of them needed. They both had so much wisdom and encouragement to offer. There is power in stories and in listening.

I admire the strength and resilience of the people living here. Living in this area is hard. They face huge difficulties, like losing loved ones in car accidents on these mountain roads, house-fires, health issues, raising grandkids because drugs take the lives of their grown kids. Most of them live on the mountain, where there are few resources. Healthcare, higher education, or Walmart, are all off the mountain. 

However, in the face of hardships, these families are so full of joy and have so much wisdom to share.

I’ve learned so much from the families Mountain T.O.P works with, some actual skills, like one family taught me how to milk goats and make pickles. But I’ve also learned three huge things to take with me as I go home at the end of the summer:

  • Be hospitable
  • Extend empathy
  • Give generously

Those are world-changing actions. Like, what would the world look like if we welcomed every person we encounter into our lives, like the families in Grundy County, TN? What would happen if we shared a meal with someone who is different than us? What would happen if we fully listened to someone’s story? What would happen if we let go of our preconceived notions against people? I encourage you, to be still and listen.  

Hallie Marie was a first-year summer staffer at Mountain T.O.P. Her role throughout the summer was to work with families in the preparation, execution, and follow-up of their minor home repair projects.  In addition, she supported the program manager with all things games, worship, and camp culture.  Off the mountain, Hallie Marie attends Berry College where she is currently a resident assistant.