By The Columbia Chronicle

by Ricky Johanet

Freshman, marketing communications

I look around at this strange environment. The air is clean. The only sound is the wind rustling the trees and grass. Cattle graze in the distance. There are no buildings or restaurants. The nearest source of drinking water is 10 minutes away. I can scream and hear my echo travel miles and miles into the belly of Appalachia. I am now completely secluded in the mountains of Hancock County, Tenn., for seven days. Why the hell am I doing this?

Winter 2008: “Doug, looks like they’re putting us toward the end of the show; guess we got a little too early,” I said.The sound check was just beginning at the Park Ridge Community Church’s 5th Annual Beatles Night, and we would be playing near the end of the bill. With time to kill, the band members and I went our separate ways into the bowels of the church. Some went for coffee; I just wandered to the back of the Great Hall. I saw a flier that I read slowly to myself: “The PRCC youth have decided! Mission Trip 2008 will be in Hancock, Tenn. Come and help change the lives of your brothers and sisters. Make their homes warmer, safer and drier. Make great new friends and experience a deeper connection with God. Sign up now, limited space available.” Though raised Catholic, I don’t consider myself particularly religious..

Now, I pictured myself standing in front of a crying little boy, his clothes faded and ripped. I thought about how proud my parents would be if I came back home with a new outlook on my life. Was unselfishness truly in my nature? Could I give before I got? Was I capable of giving all my strength and sweat without demanding anything in return? This flier raised so many questions I couldn’t stand it. I signed up.

Summer 2008: My work crew loaded up into the van heading nonstop to Tennessee. Up until I entered the van, I hadn’t noticed any regret or excitement. But five hours into the ride, my mind was racing. I didn’t know any of these people, and yet I was going to live with them for a week? Without a cell phone, how could I contact my parents or friends? I couldn’t. I would be completely isolated and alone in a foreign place. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I anticipated it. I was beginning to accept the situation; make the best of it. I didn’t want to spend that week in an awkward shell. No, I was going to work hard, make friends, help the less fortunate, absorb the beauty and calmness of the mountains, and perhaps better understand God, whatever that might mean.

We arrived at our destination and discovered our housing was an abandoned elementary school with one bathroom and no water. Still, this school possessed an astounding beauty.

There was nothing but mountains, skies and green to the horizon. At first, walking through the empty hall of this school was eerie. I could almost hear the children’s laughter from when this school was still in use. Faded finger paintings and pictures covered the walls and brought me back to my own childhood. The lack of air conditioning made the conditions difficult, but I found the atmosphere calming and quaint.

We were fully equipped to work on these homes. We had everything from hammers, nails and paint to circular saws, cement and laminate floorings. We were told the nearby town had a spring we could use to fill our 5-gallon coolers for the day. The house we had been assigned was a mess: torn-apart floors, a leaky roof, cracked walls and a terrible odor emanating from the spotty plumbing. We certainly had our hands full, but by week’s end we had transformed their home. But I was more interested in getting to know the family and bonding with my work crew than doing the actual labor.

I was astonished by what I learned about this family. Though poor, they were still genuinely happy. They weren’t spoiled with iPods, HD television or computers. They had a home, food and hard work. That is all they knew, but they were happy. When I look back, I realize I was just as happy as they when I was there. I noticed the joy I could receive by simply having a conversation with a child, how easily I could start a conversation with a complete stranger when we were both working on this house.

As the week progressed, more thoughts consumed me. My whole perspective on life seemed to change. I didn’t know who I was anymore, but instead knew who I wanted to be. The trip made me realize life’s true values.

During the returning car ride, I foresaw myself back home, but it seemed like years since I had last been there. I imagined ways I could help people around me as I had in Tennessee. While I couldn’t just walk into people’s homes, start working on their houses and play with their kids, I could help hungry people living on the streets. I had never realized how much needed to be done and how much I could do. Simple acts of kindness really do go a long way. My attitude was forever changed, and I can thank my time in Hancock County for it. I can take pride in knowing that these won’t be the last people whose lives I will help change.

The aim of “natural tendencies” is to show the relationship between humans and nature, as well as to better understand human nature .

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