By Kara Linaburg
A group of about 15 students from Marshall University and West Virginia University recently traveled to and worked in Eastern Kentucky to help victims of a disastrous flood, as part of a weeklong “God ordained and designed trip,” according to one of the ministers.
The relief trip was organized by Deacon David Lester of Saint Peter The Fisherman Catholic Church in Fairmont. Lester is a resident of Enterprise and has been in charge of relief trips such as these for over a decade.
“So after some phone calls and emails, I decided to take a trip to Eastern Kentucky,” Lester said. “And I do these mission trips in conjunction with the Greater Fairmont Council of Churches. That way we have spread a broader net. We have been doing this since 2006.”
Lester began planning the trip at the beginning of 2023 for mid-March. “I was looking for about 10 to 12 people to go on this trip. And on Feb. 9, I got my first volunteer. And it was someone who didn’t even live in that area.”
Lester continued to reach out, but over the next several weeks heard from no one. “So at the end of February there were two of us. So of course you’re thinking, ‘what am I going to do, should I cancel the trip?’”
But Lester said never once did he plan on canceling. “My prayer was, ‘God’s will be done,’ so I knew it’d work out one way or another.”
Eventually several others reached out with interest in coming, but Lester still had few signed up and only a couple weeks to go.
That’s when Kevin Sions, Baptist Campus minister for WVU, reached out.
“We (Baptist Campus Ministry) are a ministry of nine different campuses throughout West Virginia. So we had coordinating spring breaks (with Marshall University), so we wanted to do something together, the leader down there and myself,” Sions said. “It was definitely a God ordained and designed trip.”
Sions said he and the minister from Marshall, Rob Ely, would love to take about 15 of their students on a mission relief trip. They had been looking for an open door when their original plan fell through.
“It all came together,” Lester said of the trip. “And I must say it was a really, really, wonderful, group. The young people who came from Marshall and WVU were very much into it. You know when kids go on spring break, you often think that they’re looking for fun, which that’s true. In fact, one of the kids, his name was Rob, and when he came in that night, he said, ‘Deacon Lester, I’ve got one question for you.’ And I said, ‘what’s that?’ And he said, ‘are we going to have fun or not?’ And I said, ‘absolutely.’”
Lester’s group of diverse people of different ages and church denominations traveled to Eastern Kentucky March 12-17, where in July of 2022, wide-spread flooding had caused extreme devastation and a death toll of nearly 40, according to a WKYT news report. Thousands lost everything.
“The other unique thing about this flood was it occurred in the middle of the night,” Lester said. “People got up to their dressers floating and were wading out of their houses in water. It was a fast flood. It came up very, very, rapidly. And that rain that occurred the first day was like 13 inches. That is unheard of for that area.”
Lester said of the area where they held the outreach, “It’s a lot like Southern West Virginia because it’s all about mining there, and the mines have largely closed, so the economy is quite depressed. The people were already needy long before we arrived and the flood ever came. And the devastation down there, well, they referred to it as a thousand year flood.
“We ended up going out and working in five different homes. And we worked in a community center. The center of the area we were working was Whitesburg, Kentucky. Whitesburg is a town bigger than Shinnston, but considerably smaller than Clarksburg.” He said that this area is different from others because, due to the smaller population and the location, the communities tend to be more isolated and offered less help, making trips like this extremely important.
Lester is familiar with disaster relief from personal experience, but also from over a decade of planning and leading similar trips. “I am the one who has led the trips because my home was flooded, and I worked flood recovery a whole year in the Northern Panhandle. And I have some skills in organizing and project management and that sort of thing. But I always get people from various places that come, and we always advertise it as all people of faith.”
Sions said that this experience was important for his students to experience. “One of the great things our host people did, was they brought in a different person each evening, and they kinda shared a flood story, their flood story, with us. Just that we got to hear their stories, their personal stories, and for the students to hear that and relate to that, it was impactful as well.
“BCM has three phrases that we use: learn together, play together, serve together.” Lester went on to say, “Whether you serve at your local food pantry or serve on an overseas mission trip or go to a neighboring state to help with disaster relief, you just learn more about yourself. Students learn more about themselves, a skill or new skill. Not that they’re going to be skilled contractors or anything, but they learn about who they are and how to work together as a team, and working as a group. It’s just vital to do things like that. We had hard days but we had fellowship opportunities in the evening.”
The group spent a large amount of time putting down subflooring, installing drywall and insulation, working on plumbing and electric, and cleaning.
They also cleaned out a community center owned by an elderly lady who desperately wished to see the building open in time for the children’s Easter celebrations. “In the community center, it was an old school, they power washed and got rid of all the mud so it could be painted,” Lester said. “We had five people working four different days on that particular project alone. It was great for the students. It’s hard work and they were very dedicated to doing that.”
Lester said, “We were ministering to them in large part by listening to them, conversing with them, and by praying with them. And in some cases, by singing with them.” And he said th
at despite the fact that many of the residents had lost everything, “There was a real community spirit there.”
He also feels an urgency to get more people down to Eastern Kentucky. “Many of these people had lost everything,” Lester said. “You’re prone to depression and hopelessness, so that’s why we want to work hard to get more people there. We have a calling to help them, to not just do the work but spread the word.”