A roof overhead

Three decades on, University of the Cumberlands housing program keeps on building

One of the homes built for the Nichols and Fields families by Mountain Outreach in 2015, in its finished form

In the summer of 1982, friends David Emmert and Robert Day, students at what was then called Cumberland College (now the University of the Cumberlands), went for a drive in the mountains around Williamsburg, Kentucky.

One of the young men was a local while his friend came from elsewhere and had never seen the kind of poverty that surrounded his school. Housing was ramshackle, often without water or electricity, and insufficient to protect residents from the elements. The pair responded by taking it upon themselves, despite having no knowledge of construction, to do their small part by performing renovations and building new homes for some of the people in the community.

What Emmert and Day lacked in building knowledge, they made up for with persuasive skill, bringing on student volunteers and convincing local businesses to chip in time, talent, and money to make their idea a reality.

That idea led to the construction of nine new houses by the time the friends graduated two years later in 1984. It has long since turned into an institution, having completed 147 new homes and renovated hundreds more.

Mountain Outreach, as the project has come to be known, is now a non-profit service organization operated by the University of the Cumberlands. Over the years, the houses built by the organization have become higher quality and community involvement has increased, but the spirit has stayed largely the same. Anyone, regardless of skill, can volunteer.

Volunteers and professionals come together to build high-quality, energy-efficient homes for families in need

This year, two houses — for the Nichols and Fields families — were completed. For people in difficult circumstances, the assistance the program provides can be life-changing.

Tammy Fields, a mother of three and employee of a local hospital, was trying to get by in a small trailer when she learned that her application to Mountain Outreach had been chosen.

“I just can’t express how much this means to me, and the peace of mind I have knowing this belongs to my children,” she says. “My girls are so excited, and I would love to give back and work with Mountain Outreach in the future and possibly help another family like mine.”

Her daughter Kenzie agrees.

“My mom is pretty amazing,” she says. “She really does a lot for us and even though we might not always thank her like we should, we do appreciate all she does. Mom puts her needs aside all the time for me and my sisters. We are all so excited about the house. My mom works so hard and she deserves this.”

And Mountain Outreach doesn’t just build homes and forget the families inside them. These days, the houses are built with their future in mind.

“These homes are very efficient homes,” says Marc Hensley, the program’s director. “They have high-efficiency heating and air systems and are well insulated. It is great to give these families homes but we have to make sure they can also pay the bills and maintain their homes. I hope everyone remembers that by the end of the day, Mountain Outreach isn’t just about the buildings we build — it’s about the loving homes we create.”

With more than three decades of serving the community already in the books, Mountain Outreach isn’t slowing down a bit— not as long as there’s a single head around without a sturdy roof above.

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