Appalachia, Day 2

Letcher County, I am told by the hosts of this outreach program, is one of the poorest places in America. It was a little jarring, though, when we entered McRoberts, KY today, and saw that quite a few of the houses had DirectTV and flat-screen TVs…until you realize that if someone wanted to go to a movie, they’d have to drive 40 minutes…and many people don’t have cars.

So. I guess the subtitle of this post might well be “Things aren’t always as they seem..or, the truth will reveal itself.” You might say to yourself, as some of us did, “Hey, I don’t have a flat-screen TV.  Why do these folks?” But then you realize: you’ve got a house that isn’t crumbling apart at the very seams, as so many of these houses are. It’s cheaper to get a flat-screen TV than it is to buy doors, windows, contract for workers, painters, etc…or to go to the next county to watch a first-run movie.  People are trying to live, even at the most meager levels, a better (or at least enjoyable) life, despite amazingly terrible circumstances.

It truly was a little unnerving at first, when we drove into the town and saw the houses. Externally, everything looked, well, sort of normal–or at least normal for suburban/urban people like us. I mean, we could have been in Irvington, NJ or parts of Queens – the typical beat-up but intact housing mixed in with somewhat nicer environs. I think when people say “Poverty-stricken area” one’s mind might go to the typical thoughts of Dust Bowl-era pictures, people who have absolutely nothing. Well, many of these people have at least some creature comforts but underneath the veneers there is quite a bit going on.

First of all, in the aforementioned exurban areas, yes, there is intense poverty, inequality, absent dads, drugs, etc…but those folks at least have a lifeline. You can catch a bus. You can catch a train. You can walk to a store easily.

People in McRoberts are basically stuck there. You can get out, sure…if you have a car. If you maybe join the military. If you can find a job, a good job. But there is nothing there, I mean nothing. No business. One or two stores with limited hours, perhaps a mile from some of the houses. The mine shut down years ago and took the jobs with ’em.

In McRoberts, you have an elementary school with 67 children, with a budget of just $3000 per child for the whole year. Break that down–that’s less than $200,000 operating budget for an entire year, not including teacher’s salaries.

And the children are what this town’s hopes rest on, I suppose…the under-21s in this town are, to large extent being raised not by their parents, but their grandparents. Why? There is a “lost generation” of people, the youngest generation’s parents. McRoberts has a seriosu problem with drugs–meth, mostly, The entire area is a direct pipeline to the rest of the south’s drug trade, going straight down to Florida. From the layout I can see it’d be easy to find a place to hide and make that stuff. Maybe they got into it to sell it, I don’t know. For whatever reason many have become addicts, and are dead, or dropped out of the local society, amnd their parents have taken up the responsibility of those kids. I have heard tell today of so may people my age range (umm.that’s the high twenties to the mid-thirties, y’all) who are dead or lost to drugs. And while some of the mine companies are thinkign about reopening some positions nearby, they have basically dismissed hiring most of these locals because of the drug issues, among other things.

It was horrifying to realize. And at the same time, the dedication of the people who saw taking upon themselves to raise children not necessarily their own is astounding and inspiring.


This morning, we were dropped off at the home of M____, a very lovely and warm woman whose old house was in need of quite more than a new coat of paint, but things being as they are, a coat of paint and some good cheer was where we had to begin, and where we’d wind up.

There was a bit of organizational diffuclty at first, but the tools were upacked and Mom and I got scraping right away. …Don’t I look like I’m having fun?  Or an alien?

We were joined by a whole bunch of 14-year-olds, who were a bit aloof at first and then started working their behinds off.

As you can see, the house was in really bad shape.

  Boards sticking out, rotten wood…Man, it was all Mom and I could do to not start ripping off beadboard and fixing what we could…but we soon realized it was futile without a big ol’ crew. That being said, we’re making plans to return and do some heavier-duty work.

Forgot to mention all of the awesome puppies running around, who we all fell in love with…and who also decided they liked rubbing their fur on the freshly painted walls.  Are you dying of cuteness overload yet?? Just wait…


The real story here is that M________ is a proud, beautiful mom and grandma who had three kids of her own, and when two of ’em were no longer fit to be parents, she legally adopted their kids–some as young as two months–and has been raising them on her own. We talked with her a bit, and you couldn’t ask to meet a nicer, more optimistic, cheerful woman. She feels blessed to be able to have the privilege to raise these kids, despite the toughest circumstances–her own children being unable to be parents, and her husband having passed on. And now she’s gonna have the prettiest blue house in the holler.

Grownups helped too.


This was a neighboring for-real log cabin. It had been occupied as little as ten years ago..someone had built it, lived there for years, then the coal company bought it, rented it out, and after the last tenant left, let it go fallow. this house was REALLY old..there was a beautiful hand-carved signpost which you cannot see in this picture. The walkway was totally and scarily overgrown or we would have gotten more pics.

    Getting up the ladder was not an easy task as the contractors we worked with weren’t told to bring for the first couple of hours we had to make do with some old ladders we found on the property.

This is Justin, a great kid from Lancaster, PA, who had the ingenious idea of putting paint into a coffee can and then acting as the liason between paint and brush to whomever was on the ladder (I was switching off with the other tall guy, Peter, from Cleveland; we were spotting each other on the rickety ladder.)

Here’s the whole operation, with M________ watching us make her house sparkle in the sunlight.

  She looks pretty happy! As does Peter, who’s main bag is helping people. No joke; he’s a full-time worker for human dignity. His business cards say his name, followed by, “I help people.”

Here’s most of the other crew hard at work. By the end of the day, the house was lovely and blue; Mom and I actually left after lunch to assist with another home improvement project (more on that in a minute).

Here’s what the house looked like by the time we left.


And here’s what I looked like…a schvitzy, paint-chip covered mess!!


At lunch (an amazing repast, by the way…the town made us an incredible spread..homemade cookies, FUDGE, locally grown veggies, salads, bread, cheese..they were incredibly grateful and made us feel so welcome), Mom and I overheard our tablemates talking about the problems they’d been having on their job site…a 100-year-old-house and new doors to install that were the wrong size for the door openings, and a bear to manage. Mom and JB to the rescue!

We arrived at the house by way of John, a local contractor who was working for HOMES, a ministry outreach program that focuses on getting construction help to people who needed it most. He basically played patient kindergarten teacher to us hapless Yankees, who, when all was said and done, did a pretty decent job of hanging at least the first door.  I’m going back in the morning to finish up all of the stuff we started…there’d a lot to talk about from the experience, but honestly, it’s 2 am now and I have to be up at 6:30, and there will be plenty to talk about after tomorrow!






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