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He paces as he speaks. He tells terrible jokes. He makes up outrageous songs - and then tries to sing them. John Oliva does everything he can to engage volunteers when he emcees the morning and evening gatherings during WorkFest. He is committed to the experience.
“WorkFest itself has a lot of traditions, both those that are weird for an outside observer, but also traditions that are very serious and cut to the heart,” Oliva said.
His own experience at Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) began nine years ago at the age of 33. He was working as a parish mentor in Michigan for his church’s alternative spring break program, a position that he still holds, when he first visited Appalachia. Oliva had just finished his doctoral degree and was actively looking for a meaningful way to get involved in the church after graduation. It was then that he saw a message in the parish bulletin looking for mentors for WorkFest, CAP’s alternative spring break program. Oliva’s early experiences volunteering through his Jesuit high school, joining his sister on service trips, and his love of teaching all contributed to his decision to take part as a mentor.
“In the nine years that I’ve been coming down to WorkFest, my role has evolved,” Oliva said. “Early on, I would have viewed my participation as accompanying the students for that one week that we are at CAP. As the years have gone on, I have taken a more active role. I’ve gotten more involved.” Oliva has also started attending seminary so that he can become an ordained deacon at his church. “That wouldn’t have happened had it not been for WorkFest and alternative spring break.”
Harold Underwood, senior director of the Volunteer Program, explained that “John is a likable guy and has been an exceptional volunteer and host, but what he does best is bring stories of transformation back home after his work trips.” Those stories have inspired numerous groups, including a new group of adults from Oliva’s parish, to serve at CAP. It’s estimated that Oliva has brought more than 150 volunteers to Kentucky over the last nine years.
According to Oliva, being able to cultivate transformational experiences for other people is essential. “I’ve said all along that if I was going down for a week of good times, there are plenty of other places in the world that I could go and do a better job of that, if that were my only objective. If I wanted to go somewhere to do a week of construction work, I could find another avenue for that. If I wanted to spend a week in contemplative prayer, I could probably find a different way of doing that. It’s the combination of prayer, the work, making an impact in the lives of people in Eastern Kentucky, and the fun that we have. I don’t know if there is another place that gives you that experience as completely and consistently as CAP.”
He no longer sees his role as only helping students prepare for a one-week trip. Oliva wants his service to have an impact at CAP, but he also sees service as a means of engaging students and community members in the work of the church well beyond that week.
“CAP instills in people the idea that they still have the ability to change the world, and I’ve seen students come away from the trip and change their academic major,” Oliva said. “I’ve also seen students have a spiritual rebirth from the theological elements of what goes on at CAP.”
Oliva recalled that there have been students who confided that they weren’t very religious before coming on the trip. He made sure that they knew that everyone was welcome. “They came away from that trip reborn in their faith,” he shared.
One student went on to volunteer at a Catholic service organization after graduation. And although not everyone has had ground-shaking transformations, several students have remarked that their week at CAP shaped what it meant to them to be a Christian living in the real world.
“Every year is similar, but distinctively different,” Oliva explained. “There is something unique and life changing every time that I’ve taken the trip. Once you see a life change, there is a drive to see it happen again.” Oliva has expanded his time beyond WorkFest to bring permanent parishioners, those who aren’t college students, on mission trips. “I’ve seen what kind of impact it has had with our students, and it seemed a shame that our permanent parishioners were missing out on that. This kind of experience didn’t exist for them when they were in college,” he said.
“I have a big place in my heart for people who know when to be serious and when to have fun, who can be both professional and silly, and know the boundaries between the two,” said Hedlun Walton, a parishioner who took the opportunity to go on the trip with his daughter Audrey. “From the older folks in their 70s to my 15-year-old daughter, I think we all felt equally valued and part of the group. John was a big reason for that. He didn’t force you to do anything; he just gave you opportunities and good reasons to come along. Only a fool wouldn’t join him.”
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