Gellner Family Mission Trip
“Everyone needs to help as much as they can. You don’t have to be a carpenter or have special expertise. Just help in whatever way you can. When everyone does a little bit, then a lot can get done,”
-Greg Gellner, who spent a week with his family helping residents living near Gary in McDowell County.
While most families went on traditional vacations this summer, Wheeling trial lawyer Greg Gellner, his wife Cathy, and their kids had a very different idea about how to spend a week away from home. The family of five traveled to McDowell County in southern West Virginia. At one time McDowell County was the heart of the state’s thriving coal industry. Most of the mines there were owned by U. S. Steel, but were closed in the 1980s following declines in the steel industry. Today, McDowell is one of the poorest areas in the country. The Gellners spent a week there on a Christian mission trip in June.
“In previous summers my oldest son, Ryan, had gone on several mission trips. My daughter, Jackie, later joined him. Our church held fund raisers to help support their efforts. This year, we wanted to do a mission trip together. Ryan was the driving force behind it and helped find one where we could work together and make a real difference,” said Greg.
Through the organization Experience Missions, the Gellners learned about School for Life and the work needed in McDowell County. More than one-third of McDowell’s residents live in poverty, including more than 50 percent of its children. Only half of adults over 25 have a high school diploma, and more than 40 percent of the workforce is on disability. It has one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the country. (U. S. Census Report)
“I’ve always lived in West Virginia, but I had never been to McDowell County. It’s an area that thrived during the height of the coal boom. When the coal was gone, so were the jobs. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost. The county never recovered. Many left. Once prosperous communities are now ghost towns. At the same time, many opted to stay. For the people who are still there but can’t find jobs, it’s a real struggle every day. Drugs are a serious problem there too. We had to go and do what we could. There’s so much emphasis on other places that need help, but here was an opportunity for us to help right here in West Virginia,” said Greg.
The Gellners spent the week in the town of Gary. At one time, it was home to one of the largest coal camps in the country and had a population in the thousands. Its population today is less than 900. Greg, Cathy, Ryan, Jackie, and youngest son Garrett stayed at the old Gary High School and slept in bunk beds.
“The high school was purchased and is now the School for Life. It’s used for various projects. There’s someone there who helps young women in the area. Every year, people live at the school and do mission work. The week we were there, there was also a group of Mennonites from Indiana. The men were exceptional craftsmen and helped with rebuilding and home repairs. It was a great experience working with them and getting to know more about their culture.”
One of the biggest challenges in Gary and other McDowell communities is that the old homes were built in the flood plain.
“These homes never should have been built in those areas, but there’s no choice. You make the repairs, but you know that it’s going to flood again. We did what we could to try to make repairs and minimize the damage next time.”
One repair was for a man who lives in a trailer where water damage had rotted the floors. Greg and Ryan repaired the floors with the help of Jackie and Garrett while Cathy handled the clean-up so everything was returned to good living conditions.
“On some level, you feel it’s not enough. You’re just patching the floor, and in your eyes it’s not that much. Yet, this man cried as he thanked me. He was so appreciative. It may not be that big in the scheme of the world, but for that one person it’s a very big deal. It was humbling–and an important reminder to appreciate how blessed you are,” said Greg.
Other projects included porch repairs, replacing rotted frames and repairing damaged roofs. They also dug drainage ditches and laid pipes to improve water drainage from the properties. Not all work was that labor intensive though.
“We spent one day at a nursing home in Gary. We met with the residents, played cards and just talked with them. So many were all alone. They shared stories about their lives. They had a lot to say, but no one there to listen. Sometimes you forget how important that is. A volunteer from the School for Life hosts birthday parties for those in the nursing home. She just wants to make sure that those who live there know that they’re not forgotten and that people are there to celebrate with them. That makes a difference too.”
One resident who stood out that day is Betty. Betty is younger than Greg, but is paralyzed on one side and has lived in the nursing home for 15 years. “Betty taught herself how to draw. She draws pictures with little faith-based sayings under them. She gives them to School for Life to sell for her, and she uses the money she earns to buy her soft drinks.” Greg bought some of them and he said they are very inspirational.
He found it amazing to see bright outlooks on persons who found themselves in very difficult situations. “That day at the nursing home was very different than those that involved physical work, but just being there was so important for the people who lived in the facility. In some ways, I believe my day there means even more to me than the others.”
Greg and their family plan to continue their mission work and hope that others join them.
“One of the biggest challenges in McDowell County is its high-level of need. It would be impossible to do everything, but if everyone does a little bit then a lot can get done. Everything that gets done makes someone’s life a little better. A lot of lives can be affected. I learned so much that week, more than I’ve learned in a very long time. It’s humbling. I’m glad that my family was part of it, and I look forward to the opportunities to do it again. In reality, I think these great folks helped us at least as much as we helped them.”
Greg Gellner has practiced in Wheeling since 1987. After beginning his legal career with a large firm, he opened his own practice, Gellner Law Offices. Cathy is a lifelong Marshall County resident and volunteers regularly with Glen Dale United Methodist Church and the House of the Carpenter in Wheeling. Ryan earned a degree in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and is now in graduate school at Virginia Tech. Jackie is a junior at Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts, and plays on the college’s women’s ice hockey team. Garrett is a freshman at John Marshall High School this fall.
This feature on the Gellner family mission trip was written by the West Virginia Association for Justice (WVAJ) as part of its West Virginia Trial Lawyers Care program. It is shared here with permission from WVAJ.