Christian Appalachian Project celebrates 50 years of helping those in need

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comApril 11, 2014 

  • CAP By the Numbers

    50: Years serving Eastern Kentucky

    15: Ranking among largest human services nonprofits in the country

    23: Annual fundraising target in millions of dollars

    600,000: Individual gifts expected this year

  • For more information about the Christian Appalachian Project, go to Christianapp.org.

It's tough to drive very far in Eastern Kentucky without seeing the Christian Appalachian Project logo.

"What's the big word for being everywhere," said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf. "Ubiquitous?"

For 50 years, the Christian Appalachian Project, or CAP has been helping folks in one of the more impoverished regions of the country. CAP is the 15th-largest human services charity in the country. Guidestar, a clearing house for nonprofit information, lists it as being a $131 million a year enterprise.

This year alone, according to chief executive officer Guy Adams, the fundraising goal is $22 million. Tens of thousands of people over the years have received such help as food, clothing, shelter, summer camps, elder visits and domestic violence shelters, and it all began with one Roman Catholic priest.

In 1950, after just a year working as a priest, the Rev. Ralph Beiting was assigned to pastor a large swath of Eastern Kentucky. There was not a single established Roman Catholic church in the area at the time.

Adams remembers talking to Beiting about starting his first church, St. Clare in Berea.

"He said, 'I started the church with six Catholics.' I interjected, 'You mean six Catholic families?' He said, 'No, six Catholics.' Think about that."

Catholics in the 1950s were few and far between in Eastern Kentucky and generally under some suspicion in places like Louisville where there are larger numbers.

"People are always concerned about the unknown. With such a low number of Catholics in Eastern Kentucky, it was an unknown," said Adams.

Beiting liked to say that in the beginning he was "as welcome as a porcupine in a balloon factory," Adams said.

But Beiting had a big personality. He was the kind of guy who would fill a room by stepping into it. Early pictures show a strapping man with dark hair, but he enduringly was known for a thick head of white-gray hair made more prominent by his white collar and black shirts.

Beiting's first work in the region began with him stuffing his white car — in some tellings it is a Cadillac, in others a Buick — with whatever donations he could scrounge from Northern Kentucky parishes.

Adams said Beiting knew instinctively how to make inroads. He didn't try to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to the problems he saw. He talked to people. He listened. And he didn't push his particular brand of faith.

"I think what was different, and why he was more accepted than many, is that he didn't walk up to people and say, 'I'm Father Ralph Beiting, a Catholic priest, and I am here to help you.'"

People in the mountains, Adams said, didn't need an introduction to faith.

"People in Appalachia are a heavily churched people," he said. "It may be Old Regular Baptist or Southern Baptist or Pentecostal," but they didn't want for religion.

Beiting had a way of representing the church that was, "first and foremost, to represent the love of God in Jesus Christ."

Also, he was a man of action, willing to do whatever needed to done as it came before him.

Lee Mueller, who covered Eastern Kentucky for decades as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, remembers one encounter with Beiting.

It was flooding in Floyd County. Water was chest-high on Main Street in Martin. Mueller was on dry land when he saw a figure in the distance pushing through the temporary tide. "Here came Father Beiting wading down the middle of Main Street holding a puppy up over his head."

The murky water, the black shirt, the white collar, the puppy held aloft in both hands: "It was the best photo I never took," said Mueller, who had a notebook but no camera.

In 1964, Beiting officially organized the Christian Appalachian Project. The first official CAP project was a summer camp for boys at Cliffview Lodge on land at Herrington Lake in Garrard County. The camp tradition continues at Camp Andrew Jackson in Jackson County and Camp Shawnee in Floyd County, with programs now offered to girls as well.

Mueller sees the CAP name, which uses the word Christian instead of the word Catholic — as part of Beiting's well-earned reputation for being a canny fundraiser. "If you slap Catholic on there, then probably some Protestants would blow you off," Mueller said.

Still, much of the support continued to come from heavily Catholic parts of the country such as the Northeast, Adams said. That continues today, with 60 percent of CAP donors, and an equal share of volunteers, coming from Catholic families.

In the early days of CAP, Beiting would bring back phone books from his trips to other cities. He'd instruct volunteers to look through them, pick out the most Catholic-sounding names and then write them letters seeking donations.

There was steady growth, Adams said, and CAP switched from Beiting's phone book method to more orchestrated direct mailing.

That outreach continues and, Adams said, CAP is working on "direct response television" advertising. The idea is to get people to donate in response to the emotional tug of an ad. Think of something similar to Sarah McLachlan's wrenching ad for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that includes a phone number to call to donate immediately.

CAP recently created a documentary, 50 Years in the Mountains: The Story of the Christian Appalachian Project. It is part of CAP's effort to celebrate the anniversary and better tell its own story, Adams said. It is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. May 12 on KET.

As CAP's services have grown, he said, so has the need for to raise money. This year alone there will be about 300,000 donors.

The growth has not been without challenges. During the late 1990s, CAP fell out of favor with some nonprofit watchdog groups for exceeding the recommended percentage of money spent on overhead rather than direct services to the needy.

The concerns were more a matter of perception than fact, Adams said. At the time, CAP, and all non-profits, could count donated, in-kind goods as income. Over the years, Adams said, CAP has received $1.4 billion worth of products it has stored and distributed.

In his day, Beiting used 1950s-era images of Appalachia's extreme poverty to good effect, Adams said. Over the years Adams has heard from people worried that CAP capitalizes on the stereotypes of people living in tar paper shacks to raise money. But, he said, CAP's current employees are careful to portray clients with as much dignity as possible. There is a list of words to avoid in fundraising materials, such as hovel.

No one says, "I'll be going to my hovel now," Adams points out. To each person, no matter how humble, it is home.

When the recession hit in 2008, CAP had to cut budgets and staff. Beiting, who resigned as chairman of the board in 1999, died in 2012 at age 88.

But the need remains as much as ever. And, Adams said, that's not likely to change.

"It is not our goal to eradicate poverty," he said. "I wish we could say it was and we could really do that."

Pillersdorf, the Prestonsburg attorney who focuses on helping non-profits in his professional and personal life, said CAP's work is far-reaching and, at times, overwhelming for other charitable efforts in the region.

"There is really fierce competition among non profits for money," he said.

Adams said CAP has a renewed focus on working with other nonprofits in Eastern Kentucky to make the most of the money available.

"There was a time that when we did something we wanted to make sure CAP's logo was there," he said. "Now we don't care. We want to make sure somebody's needs are being met."

And as big and unyielding as those need are, he said, CAP really tries to keep a focus on one person, one family at a time. He likes to tell the story of a woman who lived in an especially isolated holler. After her last neighbor died, she was often alone. A CAP worker visited through an elder program but couldn't seem to lighten the woman's mood. In sort of a last-ditch effort, she brought the woman a small, lighted Christmas tree from Dollar General.

The woman told her it was her best Christmas ever, and she kept it up all year.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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