Tucked away in the hollers of Fayette County, West Virginia, Global Volunteers’ self-reliant partner communities know how to survive adversity. While hardship and loss are consistent companions to those who live here, COVID-19 arrived as an especially threatening adversary. Similar rural regions in the U.S. have experienced the number of cases seen in Fayette County. But the difference here — in towns including Beards Fork, Oak Hill and Fayetteville — is belief in a local vision. Generations here have grown up knowing that their future depends upon their own vision of possibility – variously called hope, faith or determination. Read on for lessons in inspiration born of hardship.
Like its neighboring states, West Virginia is still seeing about 80 cases of COVID-19 every day. In Fayette County, where Global Volunteers serves, 215 cases of the virus have been confirmed, and 10 residents have died since the pandemic began.
But the comparatively low numbers are a counterpoint to the overriding, generational trauma of poverty that COVID-19 compounds every day. For instance at the end of 2019, the unemployment rate in the region was approximately six percent – which has doubled now due to the public health crisis. The U.S Census Bureau reports the average income for local workers is $21,000 a year, and some 20 percent lives below the federal poverty line. Some reports conclude that nearly 25 percent have a total household income below 50% of the state median income.
Furthermore, one in five West Virginians age 25 or older hasn’t graduated high school, and only 15 percent have a bachelor’s degree. These are the challenges Global Volunteers’ partner, The Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS), addressed long before the pandemic began. Now, as SALS founder and director John David wrote in a May 2020 editorial, the population which SALS supports is limited even more: “According to a Federal Reserve survey reported in The Wall Street Journal, only 20% of those limited to a high school diploma could work from home — and West Virginia leads the nation with those who only have a high school diploma.”
Educational attainment in the area served by SALS is already alarmingly low, dipping to 27 percent proficiency in math and 37 percent in reading, John said.
Prosperity Amidst Poverty
Struggle and negative odds don’t discourage West Virginians for long. In fact, they’ve learned to thrive in the midst of adversity – creating beauty, music and history as an exchange. Their inspiration: The rugged mountains, the rich coal, gas and mineral deposits and major rivers that are both barriers to and conduits for economic and cultural development. Due to their long history of topographic isolation, residents have been forced into self-reliance. As a result, communities developed their own textiles, raised their own food, built shelters and made household implements from materials at hand. Necessity has not only been the mother of invention, but also of art and beauty: Fayette is well known for pottery, glass, and weaving. The arts that local residents have developed out of necessity in this remote mountain region testifies to their resilience. This resilience belongs not only to West Virginians, but to the Appalachian culture of which they are a proud part.
Appalachia is a cultural region extending from New York to northern Alabama and Mississippi. By cultural region we mean that it was not established by legal boundaries, but by the culture and environment that the self-described “mountain people” have historically shared. The origin of Appalachia’s resilience is found in it’s people, according to The Alliance for Appalachia:
“We’re a people tied to the land. It’s what’s given us our lumber for cabins, our bountiful gardens, our drinking water, and, for better and for worse, the industry. The fact that we are money-poor has shown us that we have wealth in other ways. Our crafts – quilts, baskets, pottery, canning – coupled with our resourcefulness – have helped us to thrive. And anyone who has ever heard an old-time band knows that we have great music.”
“Appalachia has been called a special place, often in reference to its cultural distinctiveness, beauty and God-fearing people. But, lately, it is hurting — and hurting bad — for many reasons,” John said.
The people Global Volunteers works with and serves in Fayette County, West Virginia are talented, strong, and resourceful. It is with a positive mindset that they have faced COVID-19 and the consequent economic debacle. That resilience is the foundation of our partnership – and our continued support throughout this unprecedented time. When volunteering in West Virginia resumes, our one-on-one with children, teens, and adults in Fayette County will be even more important than ever. You can help tackle the most pressing projects, including repair and rehabilitation of housing, after-school and GED tutoring, summer enrichment program, and more. Learn more about volunteering in West Virginia.
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