ASHLAND, Ohio — Several years ago, while I was helping with a summer program for the children in the village of Savannah, Ohio, I realized the library was not readily accessible to some of the children.
Learning our local library was taking the discards from used book sales to a recycling center, I was able to rescue the unwanted children’s books. The youngsters eagerly took many books, but hundreds more were left.
An Ashland County, Ohio, group was going to Kentucky at Christmas time that year to take food, clothing and other necessities to the poorest area in the United States. My husband and I delivered about 300 pounds of books to local volunteer coordinator, John Robinson.
That January we received a thank-you note and learned that John, along with other volunteers, spent several days in Harlan County, in southeastern Kentucky. They had filled a 26-foot box truck, plus a 53-foot semi-trailer, with goods to deliver to the people in need there.
Other groups and loads of donations from several other states also arrived there for an annual Christmas giveaway, set up as a “drive through.” Some families waited in their cars overnight, with the line going for miles. Some walked long distances. More than 900 families came. Families were given appropriate clothing, food, toys, diapers, bicycles, blankets and household items. Local churches helped with more volunteers, lodging and meals.
Hit hard by mines closing
Closing of most of the coal mines in the last few years triggered extensive unemployment, with the resulting economic and social problems. The people of Harlan County and surrounding areas face a bleak future.
The few mining jobs available are hundreds of miles from home. Locally, there are few opportunities for employment that pay enough to live decently and adequately care for a family. One school bus driver receives only $75 in his paycheck.
Many residents find themselves trapped. Where to go? How to get to a new job if the vehicle, bought in better times, requires repairs or has been repossessed?
There is even the sad irony that these coal miner families of eastern Kentucky cannot even afford coal to heat their homes nor to retrofit their furnaces to burn wood. There are some government initiatives to assist the miners in training for new occupations and grants for relocation. Such programs are limited in time and numbers, and the needs outweigh the resources. More than 6000 miners were laid off just in the last few years and stricter federal air regulations, effective in 2016, are expected to close more mines.
“What we need most of all, is industry, someone to take a leap forward and invest in Harlan County,” said Donna Pace of the Harlan County Community Action Agency.
“Southeast Kentucky people are proud, hard-working people, but we need jobs to break the cycle of poverty. We have re-trained some of the workforce for jobs in other places, both in state and out of state, but this will always be home.”
After I learned more about this region’s hardships, I wanted to try and get more discarded library books to Kentucky where they would be appreciated. So my husband, Phil, and I drove 900 miles, round trip, to deliver half a ton of books and to learn more. The books were welcomed and we were able to talk with some local residents.
They gave insight into life there, as well as connections to other individuals who could tell of their experiences. Those conversations and further research paint a picture of many families suffering, not just financially, but also emotionally and socially. One little girl at a church program was not her usual cheerful self and when asked why, she replied, “I don’t feel well. It’s not my day to eat.”
The problems also go beyond the home life such as volunteer emergency services. Firefighters and emergency medical technicians face a shortage of funds for training, equipment, vehicle fuel and repairs.
What you can do
Empathizing with the plight of those in Kentucky is not enough. Challenge yourself, your civic or church groups, or employer to also become involved, if only for a one-time assistance. What may sound like a daunting proposal actually takes less effort than imagined. Even a pack of garden seeds will reap sincere appreciation.
What happens to the tons of items left after a family or church rummage sale? Many companies and stores have merchandise they can spare. Do other libraries throw away books? It can be surprising how things fall into place once the mission is initiated.
What is needed? Everything. The goal is to get basic, continuing needs such as food, but also things for these people to be more self-sufficient, like plants and tools, canning jars and containers.
Chickens or bees could provide income. They can use nails, shingles, windows and doors to repair homes. Quilting materials, school books and woodworking tools would be greatly appreciated.
Prom dresses would allow teen girls not to miss that life milestone. Craft supplies could become sellable items for tourist gift shops.
Financial donations for “micro-loans” would allow residents to start a small enterprise that, when the loan is repaid, would enable others do the same. Dollars can be multiplied by matching grants and value at food banks.
Everyone knows a friend or relative with a van or truck. Sometimes companies will provide a larger truck for charitable purposes. A one day or week-end trip to deliver goods can be a mini-vacation for Kentucky is a beautiful destination with many natural and recreational venues.
A growing network of local churches and groups there are willing to accept, store and distribute any donations. Those on the contact list are willing to facilitate any efforts to bring relief to the families of eastern Kentucky and coordinate for groups willing to come and assist with projects such as house repairs.
One child, at a church program with food and other good things not accustomed to, asked, “Is this what heaven is like?”