By Susie Hillard Bullock THE DRESSES It was a gorgeous late summer day in Kentucky. Under a brilliant blue sky, my new Chicago-based colleague and I drove through the beautiful hills of Jackson County, about 90 minutes south of Lexington. I wanted to give him a first-hand look at a CAP home repair project. Both my parents were born and grew up in Jackson County, and as we rolled through the peaceful countryside, my thoughts turned to them. Following my mom’s death in 2007, my siblings and I spent several days sorting through her belongings. She kept everything, or so it seemed. We chuckled at some of the things she saved—dozens of red plastic coffee cans, for example—and wept over others. Among the treasures we uncovered were four tiny, handmade dresses—two blue and two pink with long, wide sashes that tied in the back--that Mom sewed for me in the early 1960s. From the day I came home from the hospital to our small dairy farm in Eberle, my mom and sister Tish fussed over me. As the first baby in 11 years (two more sisters followed me), I was like a new toy to my much older siblings. My father took lots of pictures of me in those dresses. I wore them every day, not just on Sunday. When we finished cleaning my mom’s house I carefully washed and ironed each dress, then took three, along with photographs of my mom and dad, and framed them. (I’m saving the fourth for a future granddaughter). They hang on the wall at my home, a reminder of my heritage and of Jackson County, where my life began. As I gaze out the car window, stunning vistas and signs of hard times compete for my attention at every turn. We stick to our directions until we spot two Christian Appalachian Project pickup trucks parked in front of an old mobile home that has seen better days. In the back yard, crew leader Darrell, an industry-trained carpenter with West Virginia roots, is showing long-term volunteers Jason, 23, Bill, 20, and Emily, 24 how to build a deck. As Emily and Bill measure and re-measure, Jason unloads building materials. Over the next 3 or 4 weeks, Darrell will supervise as they install energy-efficient windows, patch holes in the walls, put in a new floor, replace the deck in front, and build a wheelchair ramp. Emily, who arrived from Georgia only a few weeks earlier, has no experience in home repair. She smiles sweetly and listens carefully as Darrell shows her how to make sure the corners are square. “After graduating high school, I knew that I wasn’t ready to go straight off to college” she tells me. “So after some personal and family prayer, talks with my family and lots of time on the Internet researching ways to volunteer, I found Christian Appalachian Project. This is where God wants me to be.” A NEIGHBOR IN NEED Like the other long-term volunteers who will spend a year working on dozens of homes, Bill, Jason, and Emily will become friends with the families they serve. Jeff, the homeowner, has been unable to work since suffering a spinal cord injury in an auto accident in 1997. In his 30s, the father of two young children uses a walker to get around. His mother Wanda does the best she can to help out. We stick our heads in the back door and ask him if he feels well enough to meet some CAP staff. We step inside where Jeff sits in a recliner. His right foot is heavily bandaged, and you can tell that part of it is missing. He explains that doctors removed the heel in an effort to control infection in the bone. Now there’s a chance the foot may have to be amputated. He tells us about his health problems, which have been made worse by living in a trailer that leaks air and water like a sieve. I spot a hole under the sink that’s large enough for wildlife to crawl through—and learn some have. He tells me that last winter it cost $600 to heat the small trailer for one month. Already dependent upon his mother and his sister, who lives nearby, Jeff is scared. We talk about his upcoming doctor visit, and then the conversation turns to where everybody’s from. SHARED ROOTS In Kentucky, everybody wants to know where you’re from and who your kinfolks are. It’s an unquenchable desire to “connect the dots,” to find common ground, that goes back generations. Jeff’s mother Wanda walks in, and when I mention that I’m from Jackson County, the questions start to fly. “Who are your parents?” she asks, right on cue. “My mom was a Hays, my dad was a Hillard,” I answered. “Did you know Phee Hillard?” “Yes. He was my grandfather.” Wanda and I look at each other in amazement, and then away we go, backtracking through five decades to the exact spot where our paths first crossed. “Oh yes. I remember you,” she said. “I helped iron your dresses when you were a little girl. They had bows that tied in the back. You had the cutest blonde curls.” She recalls details of my life that I can’t remember—the house we lived in and my grandparents’ house across the road. She remembers that my mom taught in a one-room schoolhouse not far from where we’re standing. I tell her how I had discovered those dresses and promise to bring them by next time I’m in Jackson County. THE UNBROKEN CIRCLE Family and neighbors are everything in Eastern Kentucky. Roots grow deep, and bonds formed generations ago transcend time, distance, and circumstance. Only 20 minutes ago, I had entered the home of strangers. Standing in their kitchen, my eyes fill with tears as my mind begins to grasp the hardships these friends have endured. “It’s my turn to help you and your family,” I whisper as I hug Wanda. We say our good byes, and I walk back outside into the sunshine, confident that Darrell, Emily, Jason, and Bill will make sure my friends’ home is safe, warm, and dry before cold weather sets in. When I get home that evening, I pause to take a fresh look at my dresses and the pictures of my parents. Of all the home projects I could have visited that day, God led me to the very one I was connected to. I can hardly wait to tell my family. *Names and some minor details have been changed out of respect for the privacy of participants, volunteers, and staff.