Building Homes for the Needy

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 6, 2002

Almost every day during the last 18 summers, the bang and buzz of hammers and saws have resonated throughout the hills of Whitley County, Ky. It’s the sound of love—in this case from Cumberland College’s Mountain Outreach volunteers building homes for the less fortunate.

The seeds for Mountain Outreach were planted in 1982 in southeastern Kentucky, where two Cumberland College students, Robert Day and David Emmert, were exploring the area. To Emmert, who grew up in an upper middle class family in Tennessee, the many dilapidated homes overshadowed the area’s immense natural beauty. As he remembers, “I was surprised that not everyone was living the American dream.”

Having lived in the area for years, however, Day had a different take.

“At first, I didn’t see what was wrong with the homes. I was so used to this way of life,” says Day, now a Cumberland College sociology professor.

But after some discussion, the two realized steps indeed should be taken to shape up the community, and they decided to take the work on themselves.

The duo’s initial effort began when they learned of an elderly man and his mentally challenged son who needed a new home. With more youthful enthusiasm than skill, they decided to build one and found 20 additional pairs of student hands willing to help wherever needed.

Sadly, the father died shortly after Christmas that year of frostbite and exposure. But the man’s passing only intensified the two students’ determination as they cared for the son, ensuring he had food, heat, and frequent visitors until a nursing home could be found for him. Although unable to complete the first house, Day and Emmert supervised the building of nine homes by their graduation in 1984.

Since that first year, volunteers have constructed 92 new homes and performed major renovations such as plumbing, winterizing, and digging wells on scores of others. The students—most of whom are as new to construction as were their predecessors—receive safety training, then learn as they go under the supervision of skilled craftsmen.

Mountain Outreach Director Jane Whitaker says the organization has shown students that they can make a difference, especially in their immediate surroundings. “We want our students to know that they don’t need to go overseas to minister; there is much need here at home.” And the results are lasting.

“I became involved with Mountain Outreach because I wanted to give something back,” says Wendy Himes, a junior from Mount Vernon, Ky. “Although I’d never worked with hammers and nails, my Mountain Outreach experience has given me the incentive to do more for the less fortunate.”

Needy families submit applications that are reviewed by students and college staff. Those selected pay an average of $35 per month for up to 20 years for their new home—not for the labor, but to show that they have received a helping hand, not a handout.

Students say the greatest rewards are the thanks from those who have been helped.

Dallas Vest, a Mountain Outreach home recipient, speaks for many: “These young people showed me that there are people who really care for others. Their influence turned me from a life of drugs and alcohol. I now try to help others as I was helped, by volunteering to work with Mountain Outreach each summer.” Vest has missed only one out of the last 10 summers.

“Within the next 10 years, we will build another hundred homes,” Whitaker says, smiling like a proud mother.

Cumberland College officials provide assistance to the organization, ensuring that Mountain Outreach will continue the work begun almost two decades ago by two young men who saw a need and worked to meet it.