What To Expect When Volunteering in Rural Appalachia

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A guide on what to expect in rural Appalachian culture written by Global Volunteers’ community partners at Southern Appalachia Labor School (SALS).

While on a volunteer service program, you will be immersed in Appalachian culture. Many things might come as a surprise to visitors, and so we’ve written this guide to help you better understand and adapt to Appalachian culture. If you are open to new experiences and cultural learning, you will find the people of Appalachia can teach you so much about their way of life.  

  1. First and foremost, relax. Rural Appalachia is a relaxed place and even though you came to work (and will work), don’t lose sight of how important relationships are.
  2. People from “around here” or “these parts” love people and like to have a relationship with someone they are going to be working with.
  3. I use phases such as the ones above because I am from here and they are natural to me. Please never tease the people here about their accents or cultural habits. You may hear us tease each other but resist the temptation. We like the way we talk and do not think it sounds funny. Never ask anyone to repeat a word because you think it is funny.
  4. People here love the land, the place they call home. One way to make friends fast is to let people know how beautiful this place is. It really is a beautiful place. Many have a favorite mountain or a favorite tree. Lots have a favorite fishing hole or a hunting place.

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    Volunteer Libby at waterfall in West Virginia

  5. Whenever you are working with the people here, take the stance of a learner and listener. The young people at SALS are in a process of building their self esteem and if they can show you how to do something, it would be great.
  6. In Appalachian culture, people love to talk about their families. It is nice if you can share something about your family, too. Families are very important to people in this area and most live close to their family and kin. People will show you pictures of their kids and grandkids and expect you to be interested.
  7. Speaking of living close to family and loving this place they call home, don’t ask people here why they don’t get out of this place. I have heard it so often. The answer to the economic distress here is not to get out, but to make it better here. There is a lot here that is worth staying for.

    The answer to the economic distress here is not to get out, but to make it better here. There is a lot here that is worth staying for.

  8. Try foods you are offered. That is always a gracious thing to do when visiting anywhere. Eating is a social time and a time to gather and relax and visit each other. We love chili and coleslaw on hot dogs. That is how we expect them to be fixed! We call almost all soda pop “coke” even if it is a different brand.
  9. Never come to tell people what to do; always ask them what they want you to do. This is one way of showing respect for Appalachian culture.

    Never come to tell people what to do; always ask them what they want you to do.

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    Volunteer Don and Leons planting lupines

  10. When you are only going to be somewhere for a couple of weeks, don’t try to change habits you might not agree with. Many people use tobacco products here and while it is well known it may be bad for your health, you can’t fix this problem with a lecture. So please resist the urge to say anything.
  11. It is common here for people to evangelize. That is to ask you right out about your religious beliefs. They might say something like, “Are you born again?”, “Are you saved?”, or “Do you know Jesus?” Don’t be alarmed or get into an argument with them. Just listen politely and leave it at that.
  12. People around here will also talk to everyone and wave if they see someone pass on foot or in a car. It is common courtesy here to wave or say hello to everyone you pass. It is all part of a very friendly culture.
  13. When you start talking with people, they will likely discuss the health and physical problems they may have. They also may tell you about family problems or issues they are dealing with. This is common in grocery stores and any time you are out and about. You don’t have to share any personal information, but it is polite to chit chat with the person who is talking with you. People here communicate through stories. Sometimes it takes a while, so relax and enjoy the experience.
  14. Take time to enjoy the peacefulness of a dark starry night. In the city sometimes there is too much artificial light to enjoy the stars and too much noise to enjoy the sounds of nature.
  15. Most of all, enjoy the people and let them enjoy you. Relationships are the most important thing to most of us and if you relax and fit in, you may just become “kin”.

Most of all, enjoy the people and let them enjoy you.

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Global Volunteers team with community leaders from SALS

Read more about our volunteer program in West Virginia, where you can make a difference while experiencing Appalachian culture: 

 

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