Up until my service trip to West Virginia, I had only ever read or heard about the kind of poverty I encountered on my trip. As Sister Pat put it, generational poverty has a unique culture of acceptance with a mindset of hopelessness. We passed miles and miles of small homes that were falling apart, grown over, windows broken, and roofs partially caved in. We saw a mountain top literally removed from the surface of the earth, leaving exposed rock where thousands of years of wildlife once existed. We talked to individuals who fell innocently into devastating and violent addictions to prescription drugs due to work-related injuries and improper pain management. We learned the hold mining industries have on the community, offering high paying salaries in an economy where jobs are scarce and the dangers of mining is worth the risks and health sacrifices.
With destruction existing in every facet of their lives, I never thought West Virginia could also hold such beauty and heroism. Thinking about the nature, history, music and traditions of Appalachia still gives me goose bumps. We drove throughout southern and central West Virginia, needing no more than the beautiful Appalachian mountains in autumn to keeps us entertained. West Virginians have an incredible appreciation for Appalachia and a history of unyielding devotion to their families and community. If there is one story of WV’s history I will always remember, it is one that Tom Breiding shared about the term “redneck.” Men unionizing against oppressive coal companies wore red handkerchiefs around their neck to symbolize their unity. Although the red handkerchiefs were once a symbol of solidarity and justice, it has been popularized to refer to uneducated, poor, and conservative “hicks” by the very people the unionizers were standing against. We also had the privilege of visiting heroic women in West Virginia. We met a 21 year old single mom of a two year old (child genius) and 3 month old. Despite coming from an abusive relationship and a poor family, she works hard each day, working towards an accounting degree so she can own her own home one day—a feat most women in the area do not expect themselves to do. Her persevering strength is an inspirational spark of hope for others in the community.
While we were exposed to some of the tragedies in West Viriginia, we had the privilege of meeting its beautiful people, dancing to its music, and learning from its experiences.