My New Life in Appalachia

Life for me, is different.

fenceIn the middle of August, I packed up my bags and started living in a small coal town just outside of Beckley, West Virginia. I am still a resident of Cleveland, but I am temporarily living in rural Appalachia, helping create economic development opportunities for the residents and youth of Wyoming County.

On Friday, August 14th, I was sworn in as an Americorps VISTA during four days of training in Chicago. I am part of the 2015 corps celebrating 50 years of service.

These days, I am slowly weaning myself off the technology that keeps me oh-so-tethered to the outside world.

No more television for me, really. At night, I lie in bed and listen to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. I just started reading a book on the history of West Virginia, so I am reading a lot about Harper’s Ferry right now.

My evening entertainment is the peace of the Appalachian Mountains. I have asked my friends and family to follow along by blog, so I don’t have to text or stay hooked to social media. I look forward to having more hot pepper cornbread, and making blue velvet cake and biscuits.

I am enjoying the quiet buzzing of bees along the Guyandotte River. I can’t wait to barrel up the mountain and check on the orchard, once the fruit trees start to grow.

With every waking moment, I intend to immerse myself in my new life in coal country to better understand the life and culture of its people. During the early spring, I took two separate trips to get a sense about where I might want to live and serve. VISTA requires that we earn poverty wages for a year to gain a better understanding of challenge, sacrifice and hardship.

My home is a converted middle school, complete with community showers and a bathroom door that sticks. Wireless service is spotty, but at least I have my own kitchen and dorm-style apartment. The larger group kitchen, outdoor stage and gym can easily accommodate college kids, scouts, church groups, and friends who are willing to help out with weekend projects at the MOC.

The MOC is the nickname given to the Mullens Opportunity Center. It was saved during the 100-year-flood in 2001 so residents could live a better life.

I now work as a grantwriter for RAIL, the Rural Appalachian Improvement League. My VISTA position is managed with the help of Conservation Legacy, an organization that serves impoverished communities in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and other areas of the country. So the MOC is where I have my temporary residence — the same place that locals come for potlucks, community gatherings, GED coursework and other important programming.

Sam helps the coal miners who need help with their black lung benefits. Allen is teaching me what life as a coal miner is like, since he spent 20 years working in the mines. Ronny is always smiling and gives thanks to the good Lord every single day.

Charlene takes care of the farmer’s market, and Ruby manages our farm to school program. She is using some of my zebra mussel shell compost at the middle school where dozens of children have planted seeds. This is the same compost I created the previous year while working with the children from Near West Intergenerational School in Cleveland.

The Mullens community will join together at the MOC to watch the Lego movie this Saturday. It will be the first time they had a MOC movie night under the stars. We are praying for good weather and preparing for folks to arrive. On Sunday, I will travel to Summersdale Lake and do some hiking near the New River Gorge.

The simple life is a beautiful life. I hope to learn more about these southern coalfields and why people seem so happy in Wyoming County.

MOCgarden5Outside, I can see the dewy mountain mist every morning. I can throw rocks in the river, or enjoy a picnic lunch alongside the hoop house. It’s nice to pick peppers and watch the summer fields grow.

The school where I stay serves as the main community center for Mullens. When you walk through the front door, it feels old school. People stop in the halls and politely introduce themselves. We share a gym, office space and other things.

For all those long winter stays, I will use the gym for scheduled workouts. Two floors of classrooms are used for community meetings and dorms where many of the staff and college kids stay.

Here at the MOC, we open our door to folks who need help, and to those who are willing to help us in return. We even have accommodations for motor homes and RVs — complete with water and electrical hookups. There is a wooden outdoor stage where we envision community plays and music festivals.

Right down the hallway, I will get to sit in on meetings to build trails. We have a core group of locals that want to bring the Great Eastern Trail through Appalachian hollows and further south into Alabama. Today, I am an official member of the TuguNu Hiking Group which joins together friends who support the Tug River, the Guyandotte, and the New River, too.

queenchurch4Just down the street, I can head to the Dollar General or get a key made at the auto center across the street. I am told to order fried pickles the next time I eat at the local diner. I can walk to the laundromat, stop and have a cold beer, or visit the local library.

I will take a line dance class and hike at Twin Falls. I will have supper with Ms. Pugh on Sundays and help Queenie with her roof and church projects.

There is no time for boredom. There are people to meet and places to go. Best of all, I will slowly embrace the notion that West Virginia is Wild and Wonderful.