Church group from Connecticut builds homes

STAMBAUGH — Summer vacation takes on a whole different meaning for members of The United Churches of Durham, Conn., who for six years have been making the nearly 800-mile trip to Eastern Kentucky to help construct homes.

The members spend all year raising money to make the weeklong summer trip, said the group's leader, the Rev. Dr. Elven Riggles Jr.

Many participate yearly. The church brought 35 people its first year, and 72 came this year, he said. People from his congregations from age 10 to 83 make the trip, he said.

“We have a lot of families who give up a week to come down here,” Riggles said.

This year the group's projects included building two homes in Johnson County near Stambaugh, and replacing a metal roof and floor in residences in the Frasure's Creek community near McDowell.

The experience of visiting the mountains every year has been good for their members, Riggles said.

“There's something about taking the kids out of what they're used to,” he said. “Part of the experience is getting out of your own back yard.”

Group members look forward to the event every year, Riggles said. “They want to work. They don't want to stop.”

Riggles said the buses alone, with rental fees and gas, come to $2,000 apiece. This year they brought nine.

Fund-raising efforts include obtaining corporate and business sponsorship in their hometown, selling T-shirts and collecting cans and bottles.

Church members began making the trips because the Low Income Housing Coalition of East Kentucky was working with missions. When the mission program ended, they decided to continue working with the coalition, Riggles said.

The non-profit coalition works to provide safe, decent and affordable housing to low-income people, according to the coalition's Web site. The program includes new construction, minor home repairs, making low-interest loans and homeownership counseling.

The average income of families for whom new homes are built is roughly $12,600 a year, and more than 300 applicants are waiting for a home, according to the coalition.

But the church trip is not all work. While in Kentucky, the group takes Wednesday off to visit a local recreation area. They have visited Jenny Wiley State Resort Park and Natural Bridge. This year they visited Breaks Interstate Park.

“I'm not sure if it helps out the local economy, but we hit Wal-Mart every night for Gatorade and water too,” Riggles said.