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Students travel to Appalachia in record numbers

Laura McCrystal | Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Editor’s note: The reporter attended a weeklong service trip in the Appalachia region of the United States to examine the culture of the region as well as the issues that it faces.

McDowell County, West Virginia was home to one of the highest concentrations of millionaires in the United States during the peak of the coal mining industry at the turn of the 20th century.

Today, it is the most impoverished county in the state and the four main sources of income for its residents are black lung pensions, miners’ pensions, social security and disability, Jenny Lee, a missionary with Community Crossing, a McDowell County missionary and home repair organization, said.

Similar situations exist in counties across the Appalachian region of the United States, where the rise and fall of coal mining have contributed to many environmental and economic issues.

Last week, 269 Notre Dame students spent a week at 21 different sites in McDowell County and other areas in Appalachia as participants in the Appalachia Seminar offered as a one-credit course through the Center for Social Concerns.

This fall, the seminar received a record number of applicants and accommodated the highest number of participants in its history, Professor Connie Mick, assistant director of the Center for Social Concerns said.

Students began traveling to Appalachia in the 1980s in small volunteer groups, Mick said, but the program has grown more popular over the years.

“It’s for students to serve and live in solidarity with people who are surrounded by chronic poverty and challenges,” she said. “By doing that together as a group we get a fuller understanding, even in just one week and one credit.”

One group of 17 Notre Dame students worked with Community Crossing last week on several home repair projects, including the renovation of a building to create an art gallery as part of McDowell County resident Jean Battlo’s efforts to support art and culture in the area.

Battlo, a lifelong resident of McDowell County, is the author of plays and books about the county’s culture and history. She said she is known as the intellectual of the region, and despite the problems the area faces she has never wanted to live anywhere else. 

“There are special people here,” she said. “We have that sense of community in our region of an extended family and what happens to one of us happens to all of us.”

Battlo compared the Appalachian region’s complicated relationship with coal to that of California and the gold rush.

When the coal mining industry moved into McDowell County, Battlo said every small town had its own schools, store and movie theater. Although the area was wealthy, Battlo said it could be compared to a feudal system because the coal companies owned and controlled everything in the town.

“Money was all at the top,” she said. “Many of [the coal miners] could not buy the coal they were mining. Their kids were cold.”

After World War II, Battlo said mechanization and technology caused a loss in jobs and residents began to move out of the Appalachian region as the coal resources diminished.

“It became a tragic area,” she said. “Coal was not the mainstay, it wasn’t king anymore.”
Within an eight-month period in 2001 and 2002, two major floods hit McDowell County, which added to the poverty and hardship in the region and caused more residents to leave, she said.

“I wouldn’t really guess at the statistics of how many people left,” she said.

The story of McDowell County is representative of the entire Appalachia region, Lee said, which is why many organizations such as Community Crossing exist.

“When you take [the wealthier people] all out, you’re left with kind of an unbalanced population,” Lee said. “[Community Crossing] came in to host work teams and address those problems.”

In addition to Community Crossing and other home repair sites, Notre Dame student groups work with community partners who are committed to issues including education, environmental concerns, healthcare, legal consultation and farming, Mick said.

“It’s really not one seminar. It’s 21 seminars,” she said. “Every situation is really different, so it’s great to see students in action. The opportunity is just so great to learn through experience.”

Sophomore Conor Wolohan said the immersion experience taught him a lot about the culture of the region.

“We were doing work for [McDowell resident] Leon, for example,” he said. “We were fixing up his kitchen which was in really rough shape and we were doing something for him that he couldn’t have possibly done for himself. And he was really kind and greeted us and showed us about some of the history of the place as well as his own history.”

Emily Meyer, a junior, said she was surprised to learn about the reality of the transformations that have occurred in McDowell County and how they have affected area residents.

“I think it was a good opportunity to really step outside your shell and see life from a different perspective,” she said. “Even if you’re only doing something small it still makes a worthwhile difference in that person’s life.”

Mick said students learn about the problems in Appalachia and help make a difference, but they also experience a different way of life.

“This week forces them to slow down and take another look at life and what really matters in the end,” she said. “I think it helps instill a sense of values and priorities that they take with them throughout their lives.”

Sophomore Ryan Traudt said the immersion experience helped him realize there are areas of need in the United States beyond the urban poverty issues with which people tend to be most familiar.

“You come here and you’re only working for four days,” he said. “I feel it’s more or less developing a knowledge for yourself that these people really do need your help. We need to continue to have people like this in mind when we’re looking at what we’re going to do as adults.”

Mick said that a number of former Appalachia participants have been inspired to continue their involvement in the region.

Alex Choperena, who graduated in May, is one example, she said. He went to the Glenmary Farm site for the seminar last year, where he is now living and serving as a fulltime Americorps volunteer.

The Appalachia Seminar is organized by a student task force and is led by student site leaders.

“I think our emphasis on student leadership development is really key,” Mick said. “We put a lot of trust in students and they have always risen to the challenge. So I think that’s somewhat unique.”

Senior Kenzie Bowen, who served on the task force last spring and this fall, said she wanted to become more involved after she went to Appalachia during fall break of her sophomore year.

“The Appalachian region is a beautiful region environmentally and the people are fantastic,” she said. “But it really does face a lot of problems that other parts of the country don’t see. I think that the Appalachia seminar does a great job of exposing these issues to students.

“I really think it’s an experience everyone should do before they graduate from Notre Dame.”