TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - South Carolina sisters Lindsey and Lee Ellen Fulmer have spent a week of early mornings wearing plastic gloves, spooning up grits and gravy at Saints’ Brew, the feeding ministry of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo.
Though they smile and chat as they greet the guests in line at Saints’ Brew, they could be excused for being a little road weary.
After all, they’ve been traveling around the country in a beat-up Nissan Cube with a gimpy transmission for nearly a year, living out of suitcases, sleeping in strange beds, and serving the needy everywhere they go.
Now they are within sight of the goal they set for themselves: to spend one week volunteering in each of the 50 states. After Mississippi, only Alabama and Georgia stand between the Fulmers and the fulfillment of that vision.
Twenty-five-year-old Lindsey graduated from Lee University with a degree in youth ministry in 2014, and she wanted to do some exploring before she settled down.
“I thought about backpacking through Asia. I love Asia, and there are lots of volunteer opportunities there, but something kept calling me back to the States,” she said. ” I just wanted to get a feel for what condition the country is in.”
She didn’t mention her private ruminations to anyone, not even her sister.
“I just put it on the back burner,” she said.
She was working as an intern at a church in Oklahoma when out of the blue, she got a call from her younger sister, 23-year-old Lee Ellen, who had just graduated from college with a degree in elementary education.
“Lee Ellen called and said, ‘Hey, I have this crazy idea. What if I took a year off after college and traveled the US and worked for nonprofits?’” she said. “We hadn’t spoken about it, but that was exactly what I had been thinking. I knew that was my confirmation.”
The Fulmers planned their route, packed their bags, cranked the Cube and headed west. They reached out to a network of friends across the country to arrange for families to host them along the way, then found nonprofits in those areas where they could serve.
“We started out with six suitcases,” Lee Ellen said. “Then we realized we didn’t need most of the stuff we brought.”
The sisters have taken in lots of spectacular scenery along the way, including Alaska and Hawaii.
“We really didn’t know what to expect from lots of places. We loved the West - the desert, the Grand Canyon, the California Redwoods. It was awesome,” Lee Ellen said.
The sisters said life on the road has its challenges, not least of which is getting along with each other.
“The first month was great. After that, it just let loose,” Lee Ellen said.
Older sister Lindsey added, “We haven’t lived together in six years, since before college. We didn’t really know each other as adults. And now we’re together more than a married couple. Except for taking a shower and going to the bathroom, we’re together all the time.”
After that first rocky patch, the sisters found their rhythm and learned to lean on each other.
“Lee Ellen doesn’t sugar coat things. We still fight about things. But doing this with her has helped me learn so much about myself and work on some things. Besides, she’s my sister, so she’s gotta love me anyway,” Lindsey said with a grin.
The Fulmers said they have enjoyed the food everywhere they’ve been. While in Mississippi, they have had a sampling of Southern hospitality and a taste of Tupelo cuisine.
“We had chicken at Connie’s, barbecue and burgers at Johnnie’s, and ice cream at Dairy Kream,” Lee Ellen said.
Both Fulmers agree the trip has been eye-opening.
“One of the things we’ve taken away is that a lot of the stereotypes that are put on people by the media are just not accurate. We’re from the South, so naturally, we thought people up north would be just terrible. But everyone we’ve encountered has been super nice,” Lee Ellen said.
Lindsey added, “I just had an adult moment, and I decided to make up my own mind about people, no matter what anybody else said.”
The Fulmers agreed that no matter where they went, some things were constant.
“Across the board, one of the first things we heard people talk about was heroin. It’s everywhere you go. And if not heroin, then opioids,” Lindsey said.
Lee Ellen said a thread runs through all the volunteer groups they have worked with.
“It’s been inspiring to see all these people constantly giving, not worrying about money or about themselves, but getting so much in return, doing things they love. That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life, any way I can,” she said.
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