The Office of International Education Ties Creativity to Service in Appalachia

Donna Reale (fifth from left) with Knitters

Donna Reale (fifth from left) with Knitters

November 20, 2019

Donna M. Reale
Language Educator, Office of International Education

A website for “serious” knitters and creative spirits, called out to me around nine years ago. Ravelry also appealed to this knitter’s heart--in a subgroup for a mission to help the poor and disenfranchised people of Appalachia to live a better life. I accepted, and became involved with Appalachian Outreach, Inc. (AOI).

Based in Glen Dale, WV, deep in mountain country, this mission linked me to one closer to home, where we at St. John’s University are called to “Vincentian spirituality in action, a response to God’s call to give of ourselves.” Many of Appalachia’s inhabitants suffer the handicap of poverty brought on by unemployment and, regrettably, the prevalence of illegal drugs, particularly opioids. Further, the area is often plagued by floods, which cause an incalculable amount of damage to homes and businesses.

According to cofounders Rose M. Hart and Diane Reineke, AOI’s focus is to “help relieve the burden of poverty and the loss of dignity suffered by the people of Appalachia who, through no fault of their own, struggle to meet the basic needs of daily life. “ 

When I joined the Office of International Education in 2012 to teach ESL, I brought AOI’s mission with me and have launched many campaigns with the help of our international students, faculty, staff, and the St. John’s community, including the St. John’s School of Law library and our local Chase Bank.  

We have collected numerous items, from soap to socks to nail clippers to notebooks.  Additionally, we have taught our students—everyone from Africans to Brazilians to Chinese, from seminarians to those without formal religion—to knit baby booties, blankets, and mittens. During these campaigns, our international students learn about Appalachia and engage in community service while strengthening their English language fluency and helping people they most likely will never meet at all.

The gift boxes that contain the donated items are greeted with much joy by the Appalachian people and “are often the only present these people receive all year,” according to AOI cofounder, Diane Reineke. 

The three-pronged approach of community service, creativity, and education helps us to realize the University mission in a small way—and we are glad to be involved.