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| Thursday, October 11, 2018

She inserted her hands into my pockets. My mind went blank. I stepped back. She picked up a red ball from the floor and threw it directly to my forehead. I thought she must be some kind of rude child, but due to politeness, I asked what her name is, hoping to start a good relationship. But she didn’t answer. She giggled at her own imagination, flapping her arms and wiggling as she walked.

“She’s Maddie. She just loves warmth and light. Are your pockets warm?” Teresa, one of the community people, smiled, following Maddie and telling her not to rush.

I volunteered to study the financial hardships due to the closing of coal mines in the Appalachia region and became immersed in Hurley, West Virginia, for one week. I regularly worked with community people to conduct flooring, wall constructing and food classification during the day and talked with group members for possible solutions for the economic difficulties in this region in the evening. Maddie always came to our conversations. She would turn on very light and insert her hands into everybody’s pockets. Kids really do love warmth and light, I thought. My team talked about raising funds and advocating for more volunteers like us at first, only to find that these solutions are limited — What if all funds and volunteers come to an end?

One night, I was trying to read a novel. Maddie sat quietly besides me, staring at my book, eyes widened. “Do you wanna read it, Maddie?” I put the book closer to her side. She nodded, but then immediately shook her head. It suddenly occurred to me that probably she couldn’t read. It was hard for me to think of an eight-year-old kid in my region not able to read, but here, it might be a different story. I suddenly remembered community people talking about not having full-time teachers in Hurley High School. Yes, education! Instead of funds and workers, education is the essential shortage in this Appalachia region. Education will undoubtedly bring warmth and light for kids here like Maddie. For rural regions like the Appalachia, the poor education condition triggers ensuing problems and eventually forms a dark loop that is almost impossible to break. It is the lack of education resources that prevent the teenagers from undertaking high-skilled work, that makes generation after generation ends up in this fading coal industry, and that further hinders the development of the economy and widens the gap between this region and the country.

I believe the best strategy to improve the education condition in rural areas is conducting long-lasting assistance. Simply going to find a rural region, teaching kids there for a month and then leaving is meaningless, since the kids would only be left with one-month knowledge, and the desperate desire to wish for these volunteers to return. However, the sad truth is that few volunteers would ever come back, and these kids would go back to their normal lives, possessing little access to further education. Their lives remain the same with or without these one-month volunteers. I’m a big fan of a voluntary association in my hometown. What they are doing is offering sustained activities such as library construction and decoration accompanied by reading guidance enable kids to use these facilities built by volunteers by themselves in the future. With the support of books raised and selected by them, these kids can enjoy continued supply of books; with volunteers’ guidance of reading methods, these kids are able to interpret and assimilate knowledge in these books. I think Notre Dame Center for Social Concerns should provide the students with more opportunities for students and faculty members to give long-term support for education in the poverty areas.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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