This is the second article on the volunteers’ mission to Kentucky made by Congregation B’nai Israel of Millburn and supporters of the Millburn-based Good People Fund. The first article, “Those we work with are my teachers in life,” appeared in the June 20 issue.
On June 3, during the fourth of their annual trips to rural Letcher County, Kentucky, a group of volunteers from Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn arrived at the home of Lois Thompson in the town of McRoberts.
Located in what was once the African-American section of the former coal-mining town, her house bears scars from the racist zoning of an earlier time: Situated close to the mines, it used to shake every time there was an explosion, according to Thompson.
The volunteers from New Jersey were asked to help clean out her home, filled with a confused, disorganized mass of floor-to-ceiling clutter accumulated over a lifetime.
Looking up at the ceiling, a visitor could see gaping seams, stuffed with foam and newspaper, where the walls had pulled away. Some of the floors sloped at angles closing in on 45 degrees. The air was heavy with particulates; Thompson and others in her family have respiratory difficulties. Breathing devices and equipment were scattered among her belongings.
Each year the synagogue has deepened its involvement with the Kentucky community, and the initiative has evolved from the “rabbi’s project” to a congregational relationship. Rabbi Steven Bayar has tried to get other congregations to lend a hand; so far, a synagogue from Lancaster, Pa., has sent volunteers to McRoberts regularly and coordinates activities with B’nai Israel and the Good People Fund, the Millburn-based charity collective.
Organizing the activity on the ground in McRoberts were Bayar, GPF’s Naomi Eisenberger, and McRoberts residents Susie and Everett Duncan.
The Duncans have become the eyes and ears for the NJ group, planning their visits, finding homes to work on, organizing space and volunteers to prepare lunch, suggesting special projects, and troubleshooting throughout the visits.
Peter Freimark also comes to Kentucky every year from Cleveland (a member of the GPF board, he also joins Eisenberger on trips she takes to examine grantees elsewhere in the country and in Israel). On this trip, as on each previous one, with the help of his own congregation, Freimark arranged for a large truck to deliver much-needed groceries to the area, including palettes of everything from granola bars and ketchup to diapers and shampoo. Freimark also helps coordinate activities during the visits.
Each day, a few women from the town prepared lunch for the group on the second floor of a building in Neon, equipped with a kitchen — tuna, egg salad, a vegetarian lasagna, and loads of baked goods, including homemade fudge.
On the first morning, at Thompson’s home, Freimark took the lead. Although she was not feeling too well, Thompson was eager to get started. Wading through the bags, boxes, and papers promised to be a painstakingly slow process. In sorting through the mountains of stuff, Thompson insisted on considering each item: the baby blanket that belonged to her now 37-year-old son, the medicine bottle she used for his colic, books, games, clothing, even reams of unopened loose-leaf paper she had bought on sale. As Thompson plowed through the accumulations of a lifetime, most members of the NJ group were shuttled back to Seco, near McRoberts, where Saundra Hall needed help rehabbing the double-wide trailer where she is raising her three grandchildren, Shayla, 10; Kennedi, six; and Charleigh Beth, five.
Freimark, with one or two helpers, remained with Thompson, gently letting her make the decisions.
“Peter, baby, don’t make me, Peter. I can’t,” she said, when he encouraged her to discard some of the items. “That’s all right. It’s up to you. If you want to keep it, that’s what we’ll do,” he said in the gentlest of voices. Although the group had initially planned to paint several rooms in the house, it was clear pretty quickly that the task would have to be left for another day.
By the end of day two, two dumpsters had been filled, there was space to walk around in each room, and Thompson’s belongings were beginning to be sorted into discernible categories: games here, clothing there, books in another place. Eisenberger surprised her with large bins that could be labeled and stacked, along with a new bookshelf.
At Saundra Hall’s trailer, Henry Brendzel, a retired attorney and engineer from Millburn, served as foreman, and the work went quickly. With Shayla helping, paint was stripped from the room shared by Charleigh and Kennedi (Shayla has her own room). The wallpaper trim came down in the living room, and spackling began in the master bedroom, where Brendzel replaced a light fixture with Hall’s youngest son, Johnny, helping.
The younger women among the volunteers occasionally got sidetracked playing with Charleigh Beth and Kennedi. A few spent time with the animals — kittens, dogs, and birds — whose numbers seemed to multiply as the group worked.
In front of Hall’s home is a large garden, planted with corn, tomatoes, squash, cabbage, broccoli, and okra. Hall explained that she wasn’t able to plant beans this year because the spring rains were particularly late. Always heavy, they roll down the mountainsides and flood the towns in between. The humidity keeps everything wet, including some areas of the floor in the girls’ rooms, a situation that was evident when the carpet was pulled up to reveal black mold growing freely on the floorboards.
Years ago, Hall had aspired to become a teacher and started working toward a degree in special education. But faced with the choice of traveling two hours in each direction to complete her training or taking a position as a teacher’s aide in McRoberts, where she could more easily tend to her four children, she chose the latter.
Johnny is about to face a similar choice. An aspiring electrician, he has good intentions and a healthy work ethic. But, Bayar and Eisenberger said they think it will be difficult for him to find work as an electrician in the area.
On the third day, with the work at Hall’s trailer home and Thompson’s house completed, the group set out to unload the large truck full of groceries that had arrived. Johnny Hall was the first one to show up at the site, ready to work. It’s the first time Eisenberger had ever seen a recipient of help from GPF turning around to help in turn. Later, Johnny would tell her that if the group comes back next year, he’d like to help them again. A week later, his sister Amanda was working with Susie Duncan, organizing the groceries. Also helping unload the truck was Robert Kiser, grandson of the owner of the building where the food would be stored.
Saundra Hall remembered when B’nai Israel started coming to the area. She had been through so much, she told a reporter, that she had lost all hope of life getting better, and she had lost her faith in humanity. She certainly didn’t trust people coming in from outside the community.
“Most groups or organizations who show up in McRoberts and the area come as representatives of a religious or political community who come to proselytize,” said Bayar. “We have no agenda. We are asking nothing in return and do not seek to ‘educate’ the people we work with.
“Most do not even know we are Jewish. The value of tzedaka requires help without expectation of return. The residents of McRoberts and Neon may be poor but they are not ignorant. As they have told us — slowly over the years — having a group of people come with no purpose other than to help creates a special bond and shows them that there are those who really care in this world.”
For Hall, that was a welcome surprise, and she teared up as she said, “It’s a relief to know the work will get done. But it bothers me that it takes strangers to open up their hearts to do it. To realize there are people who have such good hearts — it’s just humbling.”
Eisenberger remains hopeful. “You don’t know how one thing you say can transform people’s lives,” she said as the group gathered after finishing unloading the food truck, just before heading over for their last homemade lunch and departure. “You don’t know what impact we may have down the road.”