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Mountain Outreach Celebrates 30 years of service and 141 homes built


Williamsburg, Ky. This summer, University of the Cumberlands’ (UC) Mountain Outreach (MO) ministry celebrates thirty years of service in Whitley and surrounding counties. Beginning May 28 and concluding at the end of July, M.O. students and volunteers constructed three new homes, the last of these being the organization’s 141st home.

Mountain Outreach was formed in the summer of 1982 by two Cumberland College students. These students were overwhelmed by some of the living conditions they saw around Whitley County at the time. Today, 30 years since its beginning, MO continues to provide homes and support for impoverished families. Dr. Christopher Leskiw, associate professor of political science, worked with MO this summer. Although he was not at UC for MO’s urgent beginning, Leskiw, sitting at his office desk, dressed in a blue Mountain Outreach t-shirt, passes down some of the organization’s history.


“The story begins with two college students, one local and one from Ohio,” says Leskiw. “The one from out of state really never understood about Appalachia, so his friend took him out driving around the county. They drove up to a house where an old man was standing on a ladder, trying to repair his roof. His house was a tarpaper house, literally just a house that had tarpaper for walls. So these two boys stopped and asked if they could help… and they did.”

According to Leskiw, these two students continued to help the man repair his home. “They built a relationship with this man. They would go to our local hardware store and get pallets and rip them apart and find all kinds of scrap wood to help this man repair his house. He heated his home with this little wood burning stove, and these two students chopped him a whole bunch of wood, wished him well, and went home for the Christmas holidays,” tells Leskiw.

“However, when the two students returned from their Christmas break, they found the man sleeping underneath his mattress, suffering from hypothermia.” According to Leskiw, “they took the man to the hospital where he later passed away.” These two students’ experiences and this man’s death captured the attention of the community. Thereafter, Dr. Jim Taylor, president of UC – Cumberland College, set up Mountain Outreach as a non-profit student run ministry.

Albert Jones, associate pastor at Main Street Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Ky., worked with MO as a Cumberland College student from 1990 to 1994 and during his tenure was even assistant student coordinator and student coordinator. Main Street Baptist Church now supports and volunteers with MO projects. Jones remembers how differently MO operated when he was a student.

“We built … one year we built as many as ten homes. Now here’s the big difference,” Jones says, laying emphasis on his words; “When we built houses, we’d build them on a pillar foundation. We basically got the house roughed in. Now when MO (of course, they build 3 maybe 4 homes) builds homes, they build on a block foundation; they’ve also got heating and air conditioning. So while they’re not building as many homes, they’re building better quality homes. That’s a real big positive change.”

Jones had a connection to Mountain Outreach, even before he was able to acknowledge it. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, Jones sits back in his chair. His leg is crossed over his knee. He speaks softly and deliberately.

“Prior to coming to Cumberland, I was down in this area visiting family, and they asked us if we would help them move into their new house. We went and helped move them, and I learned later that the college had built the house for them. I didn’t know what that meant, but when I came to Cumberland, I started checking things out and found that it was the Mountain Outreach organization that built the house,” Jones says; “It was then I thought, you know, there wouldn’t be any better way to give back to them than to start volunteering. It’s something that I really fell in love with and it came to mean a lot to me.”

Jones says that he worked on too many Mountain Outreach projects to count. “I told everybody that I majored in MO and happened to get a degree while I was here,” Jones says with a laugh. Although he served in so many different projects, Jones recalls one summer project that has stayed with him over the years.

“Probably my all-time favorite summer project was for a man by the name of Mr. Prather. Mr. Prather was living in a bus. He was very proud of everything he had. When we got ready to build, we were trying to gently explain to him that we were going to have to get rid of the bus so we had room in order to build the house. A lot of folks want to hold on to everything they have,” Jones explains. A smile breaks across his face as he continues to describe the scene, varying his tone to portray Mr. Prather.

“He said ‘move it? What do you mean?’ We were trying to explain to [Mr. Prather] that we had to move the bus,” tells Jones, laughing; “Well, he had been living in the bus, but he still took care of the engine. It was in mint condition, and he just started the bus up and moved it out of the way. We thought he was attached to it, and he was like ‘no, I’ll get rid of it, but we don’t have to tow it. I’ll just drive it away.’”

According to Jones, Mr. Prather helped Mountain Outreach volunteers construct his own home. Mr. Prather was 80 years-old at the time.

“He told us that he had just really given up on humanity until those students and those summer folks came in and showed him God’s love. My last memory of Mr. Prather was of him sitting in one of his windows, staring out to us as we were leaving, with his hands up into his chin. He waved goodbye to us as we were pulling out. There was a glow about him,” says Jones.

Jones believes that MO will continue to be an important ministry throughout Appalachia. “There are still folks who don’t have adequate water. There are still folks who don’t have adequate housing,” says Jones.

This summer, a team of nine students worked throughout a 10-week period to provide three new homes to families in need. Amy Roberts, a recent graduate of UC, worked on this summer team. She has been involved with Mountain Outreach since the spring of her freshman year. Roberts enjoys being involved in something that meets both a person’s physical and emotional needs. On the phone, she pauses to think about what she most enjoys about working with Mountain Outreach.

“We’re not just building houses we’re meeting a physical need in order to witness to these people. I like meeting the families because they really are a greater blessing to us than anything we give to them,” says Roberts.

In addition to the three houses MO constructed, Roberts and other volunteers also assembled dozens of wheelchair ramps, repaired several roofs and porches as well as equipped homes with working septic systems. Although a smaller project, Leskiw is just as eager to build someone a wheelchair ramp as he is to build someone a house.

“It’s easy to focus on the house part of it, but for me, some of the most rewarding opportunities have been…,” Leskiw pauses as his words merge into a story, “I remember this one woman. She had not been outside in nearly eight months because she was confined to a wheelchair. There have been lots of incidents where people were literally trapped in their home because they’re in wheelchairs, and so when you’re building them a ramp, you’re not just building them a ramp, you’re giving them their lives back.”

Although MO is associated with UC – Cumberland College, no student funding goes toward MO supplies. Each year President Taylor and MO director Marc Hensley request financial assistance from thousands of possible donors. A few years ago, a friend of the program presented MO with a $1 million endowment. Some of the earnings from the endowment have been used to buy land for construction. Each year, the organization draws from the interest to help construct a home. Local business and national corporations have also donated to MO.

For the average homebuyer, the kind of homes that MO constructs would cost around $100,000, but MO provides these homes at a fraction of the cost with no interest and no down payment. MO also provides home recipients with basic needs such as a stove and refrigerator and with the nice extras such as a washer and dryer.

“One of MO’s mottos is that ‘it’s a hand up, not a hand out,’” Leskiw says, “Focusing on these families can really make a great impact. These people have never had their own home. Some of the conditions you see them living in just break your heart. The recipients often treat their new homes like a palace when it finally becomes theirs. It’s really special to not only give them keys to a house, but it’s a home where relationships have been established between the homeowners and the workers as well as the neighbors. It’s more about building community than building houses, really.”

Although the students and volunteers involved in MO learn practical skills that they can use later, even in constructing their own homes, the focus of the organization lies on the aid and compassion that it provides.

“It’s hard not to focus on the work because there’s a lot of it,” Leskiw says, “But that’s not why these kids volunteer. And that’s certainly not why I do it. It brings a lot of satisfaction though, doing something with your hands and making a difference is peoples’ lives in a very tangible way. But again that’s just part of the picture. The other part is building the kingdom and just expressing God’s love through nailing a nail. It’s pretty incredible that a ministry can do that.”

Located in Williamsburg, KY, University of the Cumberlands is an institution of regional distinction, which currently offers four undergraduate degrees in more than 40 major fields of study; nine pre-professional programs; twelve graduate degrees, including two doctorate, two specialist and eight master’s degrees; certifications in education; and online programs.