Green Bay Catholic offers service to poor in Appalachia

Catholic community farm assists Appalachia families

GREEN BAY — The trip to Bethlehem Farm in southern West Virginia can be challenging. The road narrows to one lane and the final half-mile is gravel on the hilltop climb to the Catholic community in Appalachia. For Raine Nimmer, the travel challenges and any other inconveniences of serving in such a remote area are well worth the rewards she has experienced since starting at the farm in May 2018.

Nimmer, whose home parish is SS. Peter and Paul in Green Bay, serves as house manager at Bethlehem Farm, a community that began in 2005 to provide service to the local community and teach sustainable practices. The 51-acre farm hosts summer service retreats for mainly college and high school students. An adult week and family week are also offered. Groups of retreatants do home repairs for low-income families in Appalachia within a 45-minute drive from the farm.

Colleen Fitts, left, and Raine Nimmer are pictured in the kitchen at Bethlehem Farm in Appalachia. Nimmer, a Green Bay native, serves as the house manager at the farm, a Catholic community that provides assistance to local families and teaches sustainable practices. Her main duties are teaching retreatants about hospitality, including cooking and cleaning. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

“The students are divided into different groups. One group could be refurbishing a house, putting in flooring or repairing walls. Another group could be building a wheelchair ramp or even helping other nonprofits in the area if we don’t have enough work at the time,” said Nimmer, in an interview with The Compass during a recent trip to Green Bay.

Roof overs on trailer homes, plastering and painting are common repairs, she added. Alderson, which is 15 minutes away, is the closest town. Many people of the area fell on hard times after the decline of the coal mining industry.

House manager is a full-time volunteer position. Nimmer, 32, receives room and board, health insurance and a small monthly stipend. She works with a new group each day.

“I instruct them on cooking and cleaning,” she explained. “It’s about teaching them about hospitality. Everything we teach is about the four Gospel cornerstones: community, simplicity, prayer and service. It’s called ‘home crew’ when they work with me.

“We begin every day by baking bread,” added Nimmer. “The simplicity aspect of making something by hand is a learning experience. Everything we do is intentional. The bread, for example, is made by hand because we know where the ingredients are from and we waste less. They clean the space and wash all the dishes by hand. They don’t have cell phones for the week. It is a service retreat.”

The farm features a tiny chapel. A priest travels to the mountain on Mondays to celebrate Mass for the new groups. Eucharistic adoration and rosary services are held during the week. Each morning begins with prayer and evenings close with prayer.

“Part of home crew is sustaining our groups by making lunches and dinner,” said Nimmer. “They also plan prayer, so they sustain them physically and spiritually.”

On weekends, Nimmer sings in the choir at Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Ronceverte, W.V. The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston owns the property occupied by Bethlehem Farm, but a sales agreement was recently approved for purchase by the farm.

Nimmer is one of seven staff members who are considered “caretakers.” Summer servants, volunteers 18 or older, also serve the farm for two weeks to several months. “Sustainability and care for creation” are taken seriously, said Nimmer.

“We will (soon) be completely off the grid. We have solar panels for electricity and solar for (hot) water,” she said. “We have compost toilets and also bucket showers as a way of being aware of how much water you use. We don’t use dryers.”

Food is grown in a large garden. The farm has chickens and two donkeys, “who don’t do much,” said Nimmer with a laugh. She also works with bee hives to produce honey.

“I’m learning all kinds of things,” said Nimmer. “We do a lot of canning. If we can’t get it, we buy as much as we can from local neighbors.”

Nimmer, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a degree in studio art, concentrating in art metals, worked at a custom goldsmith shop for five years and as a cook in restaurants for six years.

“I felt like I needed to do something different,” she said. “You see stuff in the world and complain about it. I thought I should do something about it. You see wastefulness in everyday life, stuff that bothers you. I wanted to do some kind of service work and I didn’t know what. I found Bethlehem Farm through the Catholic Volunteer Network.”

One of the rewards is seeing the growth and camaraderie of the retreat team members. She would like to see students from the Diocese of Green Bay make service retreats at Bethlehem Farm.

Green Bay native Raine Nimmer, second from right, serves as the house manager at Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic community in Appalachia that provides assistance to local families and teaches sustainable practices. Her main duties are teaching retreatants about hospitality, including cooking and cleaning, but she also led a group that built a wheelchair access ramp for a local woman. (Submitted photo | For The Compass)

“Even the kids who come from the same school may not know each other,” she said. “By the second or third day, you can’t tell who came from where. It is really a transformative experience for them.”

Nimmer also experienced the rewards of helping a homeowner. She led a group that built a wheelchair ramp for a woman.

Nimmer will serve at Bethlehem Farm for at least another year. She would like to volunteer in another country in the future.

“So much of my life has been planned,” she said. “You feel pushed and pulled to do the things you are ‘supposed to do in life.’ I wanted to do something completely different. I was searching and I needed to start thinking about other people more. If I started thinking about other people more, then my true self would develop and come through.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done, but it’s the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had,” she added. “It just feels right.”

For more information about Bethlehem Farm, visit bethlehemfarm.net.