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Powering New Houses for Kentucky’s Poorest

DES Service and Support Manager, Larry Squires, travels annually to Lee and Owsley Counties to build houses—and he keeps going back.
Aug 17, 2021

Jake* is a single dad. His wife died, and he looks after their two children. Living with him in his mom’s one-bedroom home are his sister’s three children. They’ve been orphaned, too. That’s five children under one small roof.

Elsewhere in Boonesville, KY, is Shelly. Her home has just burned down. She salvaged some plastic bags filled with clothes. She sits on a sidewalk stoop with her two-year old daughter in absolute despair, with no recourse and no options.

The Johnsons, a family of four, own a home—if you’d call it that. The windows are boarded up and the roof is rotted. When it rains, water drips down the walls and puddles on the floor. Travis, the nine-year-old, must shake off snakes from his clothing before heading off to school.

While the individual names have been changed, these events are the reality for residents in Lee and Owsley Counties, Kentucky, one of the poorest regions in rural Appalachia. Sparsely populated at 4,400 people, it is desperately impoverished. The median income is less than $20,000 annually and over half of the county’s children live below federal poverty line.

DES Service and Support Manager, Larry Squires, travels annually to Lee and Owsley Counties to build houses—and he keeps going back. It’s a place where he literally gives these men, women and children, a dry roof and four safe walls.

Throughout the year, folks at the St. Catherine Labouré Parish in South Park and St. Thomas the Apostle in the Steel Valley Area, and the Pittsburgh area sell calendar tickets, hold monthly raffles, and host special events to fundraise for the annual mission of the Appalachia Work Camp, Inc.  As July draws near, the group kicks into gear, filling three box trucks with power tools, plumbing supplies, windows, doors, electrical breakers, nails and screws, tents and gear, school supplies, children’s clothing, and household items.

This year, the convoy tallied over 100 people with diverse backgrounds – DIY aficionados, career engineers, builders, plumbers, electricians, and simply high school and college students ready to lend a helping hand. Larry is a helper assigned to the electric crew.  Volunteers set up camp at Appalachia Work Camp’s 18-acre home base near Booneville, KY, and prepare for 7 to 10 days of work, depending on available vacation time.

On the first Friday and Saturday, they dig holes for foundation posts and build the supporting decks for two or three homes. On Sunday, volunteers divide into crews: the waterline crew digs the water line; the electrical crew mounts the breaker panel and service entrance; the plumbing crew pulls in the exterior pipes. By Monday, exterior walls are raised, and on Tuesday and Wednesday interior walls are completed, the roof is on, and wiring and plumbing is roughed in. By Thursday or Friday, the dry wall is completed, windows and doors are installed, and wiring and plumbing is finished. By late Friday afternoon, two or three freshly built, 875-square foot houses are ready to welcome their new residents.

All the while, the crew works without cellphone coverage, relying on brass-tacks communication methods of megaphones and daily pow-wows for project management and coordination. “There’s a feeling of real camaraderie,” Larry explains, “We’ve developed many lifelong friendships.”

The week culminates with a key ceremony and a prayer blanket for the families starting their new lives. Larry is pragmatic about the impact of his labor. “It’s darn difficult to break out of dire poverty. Some families succeed – and it’s gratifying to see that. Some don’t. But those kids never chose to be born into that. The little part I can do is to give those kids a warm place to sleep.”

*Names changed to protect privacy. All anecdotes are based on real events.

To learn more about the Appalachia Work Camp visit 

You can make a difference! Please contact Larry if you would like to donate.

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