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A few weeks ago, about 25 men and women from Western New York headed to Appalachia to assist the region’s residents whose homes had been damaged or destroyed by the back-to-back floods that had devastated West Virginia in 2001 and 2002. The state’s economy, which has historically been driven by coal mining, has also suffered, so the unemployment rate is very high, making those same affected residents even more in need of assistance.

Over a memorable week, our group offered what we could, and the whole experience turned out to be eye-opening, enlightening and unexpectedly educational.

First of all, having spent most of the past 40 years in an office environment surrounded by fax machines and computers, I had my doubts whether this experience had prepared me for the necessary construction tools (many of which are much more challenging and riskier than keyboards) needed for our excursion’s home repair tasks.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry, due to the patient training that our more experienced team members provided. Through encouragement and respect, they showed inexperienced operators like me how to effectively (and confidently) operate drills, nail machines, post-hole diggers and even power saws. And through their tutelage, I developed a greater appreciation and respect for those who earn their living doing physical labor in the scorching sun eight hours a day, five days a week.

By the end of the week, it was very rewarding to know that we had made some desperately poor people’s lives a little better by providing them with new floors, decks, chairs and wheelchair ramps.

But after my reintroduction to the actual rigors of physical work – how tough it is and how it takes a lot of skill and practice to become proficient in using tools – I found that there was even more to be gained from my experience. The most compelling lesson I learned is that although it’s a mistake to judge people, judging is not necessarily a bad thing if it helps lead to better understanding.

Most of us have a tendency to judge, either consciously or unconsciously. Even members of our trip’s diverse work group spent time judging one another when we first came together at the beginning of the week. Most of us didn’t know each other, some were more extroverted than others and some were more technically proficient. But by spending a week together driving, working and socializing, we soon realized that we had a lot in common with each other, and with the people of West Virginia we had come to help.

When I first met them, it was easy to make negative assumptions about their lives. After spending a week with them and listening to their stories and life experiences, I learned that these people were not really all that different from me. They’re proud, hardworking and honest people, who care about their property, are committed to their family and, though they’d experienced many hardships and sorrows, prefer to talk about the joy in their lives.

On the long ride home, I had time to reflect on my experiences. Learning to use tools had been gratifying. The camaraderie among our group had been special, and the opportunity to meet an unfamiliar region’s residents was appreciated. But the biggest lesson of all was being reminded that despite our differences, when all is said and done, we are all a lot more alike than we think.