My daughter and I spent the week high in the Cumberland area of the Appalachian mountains. As I drove the behemoth ClifFORD the Big Red Van (15 passengers) up and down twisty, rutty, nearly invisible lanes to pick up and deliver children, I discovered the real meaning of UP and DOWN the road. Not until Friday, when we had a couple of hours to explore, did we find an overlook that revealed just how high up we were.
Mountain T. O. P. (Tennessee Outreach Program) combines a day camp experience and work projects for families living in the most threadbare circumstances. Our group staffed the day camp. Other groups completed construction and repair projects at various homes throughout the county. Most volunteers were between the ages of 13 and 17; two adults accompanied each day camp or work team.
Mountain T.O.P. likes to have a one-to-one ratio of teen volunteers and day campers so each child has the personal attention so many of them crave. I watched sophisticated, "with it" teens just melt as a child grabbed and hung on for dear life. Parting on Friday was very difficult.
My job was to pick up 8 children each morning and return them each afternoon, a 2-hour one-way van route (our team totalled 5 teens and 2 adults, so we filled every seat of that 15-passenger tank.) Children emerged from rusting trailers and small, tired houses excited for a week filled with crafts, games, explorations, service, and hearty lunches. For many, the lunch we served was the only meal they had that day. I empathized with the parents' obvious love for their children - they may do without in creature comforts, but their children were clean, well clothed, and beautifully mannered.
One day we had lunch at the home of one of our daycampers. This was a big deal for the parents who agreed to host us. We provided all of the food and they welcomed us into their homes (or yards, if they preferred). Our child was initially very anxious about having us visit her home. But her mother had stayed up past midnight (after working an afternoon and evening shift) to make us cupcakes and had set a blanket under a shady tree in the yard for us. Our very loud appreciation (sugar!!! shade!!!) eased her into happy pride.
Many, many memories resound . . . Jacqueline, who proclaimed in a rich Tennesse accent that "my daddy says Ford is evil, but it's okay for me to ride in your Ford."
Jacob, whose gravely rendition of "Little Red Wagon" gave me great pain as I tried to control my giggles. (You can't ride in my little red wagon! The front wheel's broken and the axle's draggin'. Chugga, chugga, chugga, chugga, chugga.)
Anna Beth and Emily, two teen volunteers who know the words to every single chant, cheer, song, jump rope rhyme, and more and who repeated them over and over again to the children on demand.
The slimiest, grossest bath house ever - let's just say that Mountain T.O.P. puts its fundraising to work for the families in its community, not in its own camp facilities (as they should).
The inevitable prank, when unknown teens set out two ten-person tables in the middle of the camp's three-acre activity field, complete with plates and silver, water cups, and napkins.
The Greutli-Laager Dairy Barn, bliss at the end of a 2-hour van loop, just before returning to camp.
Outdoor worship services surrounded by trees, lit only by candle and starlight.
The Mountain T. O. P., sung loudly and enthusiastically by the 152 volunteers serving this past week.
That song is stuck in my head.
Now I'm back . . . to air conditioning, a grocery store within 2 miles of my house, a van to take us whenever and wherever we need or want to go, a job, and all the take-for-granted elements of life here in Dunwoody.
Little of which is an option in Grundy County, Tennessee.