August 27, 2014 - Nestled among the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky is Henderson Settlement, begun nearly nine decades ago after a frustrated judge told area residents to "kill themselves off" after they refused once again to stand witness against a murderer.
Hiram Frakes, a Methodist pastor in the courtroom at that 1925 murder hearing, was inspired to make a change in the community, and with donations of land, began Henderson Settlement (named after one of the most generous donors), providing a school and dormitories for orphans and students who lived too far to walk.
Now, nearly 90 years later, Henderson Settlement continues to minister to the impoverished in Frakes, Ky. and the surrounding area. This summer, members of the Seymour Lake United Methodist Church assisted in that ministry.
"In searching for a good mission project for our youth group's first experience, Henderson was a perfect fit," said Danny Bledsoe, SLUMC associate pastor. "They know how to receive groups that are inexperienced in mission work and give them projects within their skills and abilities."
Bledsoe, along with Pastor Luann Rourke and her husband Pat, worked at the 1,600 acre settlement from June 22-28 with seven youth— Nick Allen, Morgan Baker, Alexis Cash, Nathan Cook, Tommy Frank, Kaylynn Greer, and Chae Moore.
The group concentrated on two projects— building retaining walls on the settlement and installing siding on one of the settlement buildings. Pat Rourke, an electrician, also utilized his skills on a number of electrical tasks.
Nathan Cook, a Brandon High School freshman, said he learned about laying foundation for walls, how others live, and not to take things for granted.
"I thought it was going to be boring, but once you got doing it, you knew you were doing it for a good cause and it was fun," said Cook. "It is a different lifestyle there."
The settlement is a working farm that provides jobs in the area, has a school, church, and craft shop (at which local artisans sell their wares) and provides numerous youth programs and outreach ministries in the center of an impoverished region.
"At first the work was difficult, but once we knew what we were doing, it was like second nature," said Morgan Baker, a 2014 BHS graduate. "You always have to start with a good foundation in whatever you're doing...The experience was amazing. I actually learned more about myself and it opened me up to doing more things and helping others and doing more mission work."
Bledsoe explains that life is very difficult in the area, with steep hills and rocky soil. Tar paper still covers buildings. There is a legacy of poverty and often people don't have the resources to leave, nor do they want to leave what is home to them. The nearest major city is 40 minutes away through difficult terrain, with steep mountains and treacherous roads that makes travel difficult.
"Many of the youth have never been out of that immediate area— they are unfamiliar with what the rest of the world is like, we're trying to help them gain exposure," said Bledsoe.
While at the settlement, Bledsoe, a veteran, spoke with a Kentucky youth that was interested in joining the military. The teen expressed that it might be his only way to get out.
"He lacked resources about making the best decisions for his career," said Bledsoe. "We take for granted the options we have and we look at our youth that go to Brandon schools and have real choices about who they want to be when they grow up. The environment is markedly different, the opportunities are different in the poorest areas of our country."
While a few people are moving into the area and building new homes, Bledsoe said that simply serves to build a greater disparity for the impoverished.
Still, Henderson Settlement remains to serve the poor, providing jobs, education and a caring community.
"The reason Henderson Settlement is so effective is their consistency," said Bledsoe. "One of the greatest dangers in mission work is short-term interventions with no lasting change. Henderson Settlement is consistent for almost 100 years and people can depend on the organization to support and help them in their community."
He is proud of the SLUMC youth and their efforts at Henderson.
"I really think the youth learned that when given the opportunity to try new things and given the expectation they will succeed, they can rise to the occasion. I learned that I sorely underestimated the potential of young people and this was a turning point for me to really value what young people have to offer. We expect far too little, and value far too little from our teens. They are some of the most caring, giving, and forgiving people and the world would be a better place if more people behaved as these youth did on this trip."
Nathan Cook is looking forward to returning to Henderson Settlement next year.
"I want to connect with a family out in the community," he said. "We did a lot of big projects and small projects and if we didn't do them, no one else would."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville