Economies in these areas were thrown into a dramatic recession in the last decade as the region's largest employment provider, the coal industry, suffered massive closures of mining operations due to a nationwide shift to other energy sources.
Students volunteered with community organizations to help rejuvenate the region through fresh, health-centered and economic initiatives, working in community gardens, on local farms, and at area health care facilities. Community leaders in the Appalachian region hope local agriculture will be the cornerstone of improved physical health and economic wellness for the people they serve.
Through Amizade Global Service-Learning, the students and their Penn State staff leaders were connected with organizations such as Sustainable Williamson, in Williamson, West Virginia. At the core of their mission, Sustainable Williamson holds the health of the area's residents as top priority. Community gardens built on land donated by the city; a farmer's market; and other sustainable living practices help those who live there to save money and be more self-sufficient by growing their own food, but it also provides the foundation for healthy diets and healthy lifestyles. Efforts to retrain former coal miners in trades like electrical, and solar installation were undertaken, as well as the adoption of solar energy for use in community buildings.
"This shows that a group of motivated individuals, with their heart in the right place, can truly make an impact on not just one life, but many lives."
—Austin Miller, student at Penn State
Darrin McCormick is a community liaison for the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, a federally funded health clinic which he and other volunteers worked to open in the community. He said, "We realized there was a need for an umbrella to cover all of these projects that we were working on to keep our community alive, around health care, around employment. Most of our projects were aimed at making it so the residents could help themselves. Sustainable Williamson is the umbrella, the all-encompassing umbrella of several initiatives."
The Williamson Health and Wellness Center is on the front lines of battling multiple health crises. Among members of Williamson's population, 13 percent have diabetes, 46 percent suffer from hypertension, 48 percent have high cholesterol, and the city observes an obesity rate of 33 percent. The wellness center offers care to residents, as well as educational programs on healthy living, including training on healthy eating and cooking.
McCormick explained that the health center serves as a hub for all of the community's sustainability efforts, which branch out into home-grown agriculture. "If you don't have economic opportunity, you're not going to have a healthy, wealthy community," he said. "If you don't have access to good, healthy food, you're not going to have a healthy community. Instead of buying processed, packaged foods, why aren't we growing food?"
A healthy population, McCormick explained, is more ready to join and remain in the workforce. And that workforce, coincidentally, could end up finding opportunity in the very efforts that are also aimed at keeping them healthy.
"Part of this is trying to build economy through agriculture," said Nate Siggers, community engagement coordinator for the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, while joining students during a work day at the community garden. "This is saving people money that they don't have to spend at the grocery store. It's teaching them how to sustain themselves, or even make a living from growing food. A lot of residents now sell what they grow at our community farmer's market. We're expanding, it's growing. With all of this farmland around here, agriculture could be a vital part of our community coming back to what it once was."
To understand what the community once was, is to better, more fully understand what it is today. Coal mining in West Virginia towns like Williamson was a way of life for generations. Not just for a few who chose mining, but for the vast majority of people in the area. Locals say those who did not work the mines, or have family who did, were the smallest of minorities. Boys knew without question they would enter the mines to work, often before finishing high school. And they had no reason to question it. Siggers explained, "I have friends who dropped out of high school to go to the coal mines and they started off making $60,000-$80,000 a year. It was good money. Good work. When you can do that, why finish school? Why go to college? Why go anywhere else?"
And so it went for generations, an entire region of the Unites States dependent upon one industry, with no reason to diversify its workforce. It was an industry that sustained the population, and much more. It provided quality lifestyles for the working man willing to go underground each day to support his family. When new regulations on clean energy, as well as increased costs to mine deeper and deeper into the Earth to extract coal became too much, the industry crashed, as did the careers of countless individuals. As did the economy that depended upon those mines that employed trucking companies to move coal, and on those miners to buy cars, houses, groceries and more. The impact resonated throughout an entire region built on coal and through every family touched by or somehow supported by the industry that collapsed virtually overnight. It resulted in a 50 percent decline in mining jobs since 2008, a 39 percent decline in coal production in the last decade, and an alarming 30 percent decline in the employment rate in just the last two years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent of people in this region are living below the poverty line.
"It's the worst kind of poverty because it is spread across everyone. It's so wide-spread that after coal died, even people that had money are hit now," said Ian Fields, an AmeriCorps Vista community outreach coordinator working with Sustainable Williamson. Fields is a native of the area he serves, a rarity among AmeriCorps workers. After some time spent in Florida, the U.S. Air Force veteran returned home to help rejuvenate his communities.
"What's normal for the people here is just so normal that it makes it different than other communities," said Fields. "Everyone here is on food stamps, and that's just life here. Nobody is ashamed, it's just how it is. I moved to Florida and the first time I went to the grocery store and tried to use food stamps the lady looked at me like she never saw them before. Here, it's just so normal. Down there, nobody uses them."
The situation is nearly identical just down the road near Pikeville, Kentucky, where students spent a day of service working with Sustainable Pike County. Here, employees from the Pike County Health Department lead efforts to build and maintain gardens at area senior-care facilities, like Parkview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The gardens serve the same sustainable living purposes here as they do in Williamson, but have added health benefits to residents at these facilities as well. Studies have proven that working outside on tasks, like gardening, help to lessen the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
"We were looking to come up with something outside of our norm. This is working, and it blossomed," said Leslie Hamilton, a county health environmentalist.
Students helped to build garden beds, as well as domed greenhouse structures known as high tunnels, at care facilities.
Hamilton's colleague Jackie Cole added, "Gardening occupies the mind, and the fresh air and sunshine really help the patients with Alzheimer's and dementia. Plus, they're getting fresh, healthy food."
Students helped to build garden beds, as well as domed greenhouse structures known as high tunnels, at these care facilities.
Another opportunity for students to aid in rejuvenation in this region came at a farm back near Williamson. Outside of town, an organization called the Coalfield Development Corporation runs a unique agricultural program on the site of a reclaimed mine. They've turned the area into a working farm where chickens, goats, pigs and other livestock are raised, as part of the Refresh Appalachia: Agricultural Entrepreneurship Development Program. It's a regional economic and workforce development initiative meant to establish a sustainable training and development program to increase the success of beginning farmers and ranchers in West Virginia, the Mid-Ohio Valley Region, and eastern Kentucky.
Refresh Appalachia works by employing individuals to work on farms, providing jobs. The students also spend 33 hours each week in the classroom, working toward an associate degree in business or agriculture. At the completion of a two-and-a-half year contract, the crew members are trained and prepared to operate their own private farm, or may find opportunity within the Refresh Appalachia program as a permanent employee. Food produced on these farms is also sold at local farmers markets, helping the farms to be self-sustaining, as well as providing healthy and affordable food to area residents.
Refresh Appalachia works by employing individuals to work on farms, providing jobs. The students also spend 33 hours each week in the classroom, working toward an associate degree in business or agriculture.
The 22 Mine Road Farm takes its name from the mine that once laid beneath the pastures there. A downsized mining operation still chugs along adjacent to the farm, but does not yield anywhere close to the production it once did, or provide nearly as many jobs. Wilburn Jude and Chris Farley are the crew members vested with running the day-to-day operation of the farm. They care for, feed and water the animals; they build chicken coops and fences, tend to bee hives and complete any number of other tasks that keep production moving.
During a cool, rainy day, the men enjoy their break in the shelter of a small shed they themselves constructed of rough-cut lumber. A wood stove made out of a repurposed oil drum and a gifted leather couch provide comfort, along with some black coffee.
Now 43 years old, Jude was laid off from a local coal mine in 2013. He immediately went to work for himself, mowing lawns and performing other landscaping until the reality set in, that even making a living that way was too competitive in a region where everyone had just lost a job.
"It got to where everyone in the world was doing it, and everyone did it cheaper than me," Jude recalled. "I got on welfare for a while. But I saw they were hiring for this, and I put in, and I got on."
Jude is working toward his agricultural sciences degree through Refresh Appalachia, but also hopes to earn a degree in mechatronics on his own, qualifying him to work in engineering and electronic fields. He credits Refresh Appalachia for providing him a second chance, and wants to leave the program better than it was when he came so that it can continue to help new crew members who take over in the future.
"I like helping people and watching stuff grow," Jude said. "We've got to keep things going for the people around here. Just like plants and animals, if we don't keep them cared for, it ain't going to produce."
At 32 years old, Farley has a wife and 5-year-old daughter at home. He lost the surface mining job he'd worked for 11 years when demand for coal plummeted. He said he's thankful for this program, which gives him the opportunity to not only provide for his family, but also to have quality time with them. He said, "I was signed up for my CDL class, figuring I was going to have to go on the road driving a truck. My mom sent me a link for this and I signed up. This is so much better because I don't have to be away from my family."
Farley said he now sees farming as his future, and would enjoy the chance to continue working with Coalfield Development and helping others.
Farley and Jude embody the spirit of the people of coal country. They, like so many others here, have faced adversity with a fierce determination to overcome it, and a refusal to allow themselves, their neighbors, or their communities to succumb to hardship. Students on this trip took that message home with them, which goes a long way to fulfilling part of the mission of Alternative Spring Break.
"This group of students felt at home in the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky. However, they got an up-close and personal look at what happens when an entire economy depends on one resource," said Assistant Director of Student Affairs Marly Doty, who organizes the campus Alternative Spring Break trips each year. "This area has been devastated by the collapse of the coal industry. It was disheartening to see empty structures and to hear personal stories. On the other hand, the time spent with organizations like Sustainable Williamson and Refresh Appalachia were invigorating, and an example of what a determined group of like-minded people can accomplish. These students were moved by what they saw."
Each evening during the trip, students and staff would convene for reflection exercises, where they discussed the events of the day and what lessons they took from the work completed or activities they participated in. Student Austin Miller said, "I have participated in many service projects through the campus, as well as outside the campus. However, this service learning trip to West Virginia was an entirely different experience from those service projects. When I do things such as Habit For Humanity, I am devoting my time to a goal that will take a significant amount of time to complete and most likely won’t see for a long time. At the end of the day in West Virginia, we saw the impact of all of the time we put in. Projects that would have taken days to weeks to finish, we completed in hours.
"This shows that a group of motivated individuals, with their heart in the right place, can truly make an impact on not just one life, but many lives," he added. "Most of us who went on this trip have been asked why we choose to spend Spring Break in West Virginia, in light of a more stereotypical beach location. We all have our different reasons for doing it, but they all come back to the idea of service above self. We sacrifice for others not because we have to, but because we want to."
For some students, the similarities between people and culture in West Virginia to that of their own areas made the experience meaningful. Alex Davis said, "I can easily picture a member of my family or a friend when I talk to the people here, and the work reminds me of my childhood and the things I did growing up."
Student Alaina Shaffer said, "For me, I see my family. I had a good upbringing and we didn't go without, but it's because we worked for it. We cut our own firewood for heat, we do our own work and don't pay someone else to do something we can do ourselves. People here do the same thing and they really want to help themselves."
"These students are the future game-changers for our area and industry. The fact that they gave up their own time and money to service a community in West Virginia and Kentucky speaks volumes about their character and their capacity for civic engagement."
—Assistant Director of Student Affairs Marly Doty
Those similarities between home and the service motivated other students to take a closer look at their own communities.
Ryan Lingle said, "As we entered the first town we would be doing service projects in, I didn't even know we had arrived. I was utterly confused as the area we were in looked almost identical to many of the surrounding areas I grew up in. As the week progressed, and we explored more areas, I became even more alarmed than I was on the first day as I realized just how similar it is to back home. It felt as if I never truly left home even though we had just driven six or seven hours away. Understanding just how close my hometown is compared to that in West Virginia posed a sense of urgency and has really inspired me to want to help my local communities more. Although the area was poor economically, it was rich in spirit and pride.
"Throughout that entire week, I never once met an individual that was worried, concerned, or angry," he said. "All of the individuals of the area were so full of excitement to speak with you, and to help you in any manner they could. The people of the area also were extremely full of pride for everything that they own, the place that they stay, and the people around them. The environment was just so cheerful and hopeful."
Bringing full circle the lessons the students mention, they'll apply much of what they've learned on their trip, and in the corresponding class they've taken in conjunction with the trip, to an upcoming project.
"They will be doing a social-change project on campus that will benefit the campus or community as part of their coursework, as well as creating a product, program or service that addresses an issue relative to what they experienced as their final project," explained Doty, who also teaches the corresponding course. "These students are the future game-changers for our area and industry. The fact that they gave up their own time and money to service a community in West Virginia and Kentucky speaks volumes about their character and their capacity for civic engagement. I’m also humbled by this experience and feel incredibly full getting to work with these selfless students."