Reflections: The 2009 Experience with aapalshop
After considering travel outside the country, we determined that our first foray should be more within our comfort zone. We explored several options before settling on Appalachia as a destination. Here in our own country is an area where severe poverty and desolation is paired with the necessity for careful, cultural sensitivity. Because of the isolation of the region, Appalachian people have been unable to catch up to the modernization that lowlanders have achieved. In the 1960s, many people in Appalachia had a standard of living comparable to third world countries. President Johnson's War on Poverty targeted this area. Nevertheless, after 40 years poverty remains undefeated in Appalachia.
For this reason, the Make it Real Foundation set out on its first annual trip May 31 - June 7, 2009 to the Appalachian region of the U.S. We partnered with Appalshop and the Appalachian Media Institute (AMI) to sponsor students in their summer internship program, enabling them to develop their talents as young film-makers and embark on a path independent of the coal mining industry. We also immersed ourselves in the rich culture of the region to further our understanding of what makes this region unique and worthy of much needed support.
MAY 31 to JUNE 7
The Mission. Nine travelers embarked on the first annual trip of The Make it Real Foundation, intent on realizing our mission of a personal giving experience where we could see our charitable donations in action, and at the same time gain a valuable understanding of the local people and culture. The trip truly exceeded our expectations.
From Luxury to Austerity. We met in Asheville, North Carolina and spent our first morning visiting the Biltmore Estate, the largest personal residence in the U.S. and home of the Vanderbilts. The grandeur of the estate was a stark contrast to what we would see later in the week as we visited several small towns in eastern Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. After a bountiful lunch on the Biltmore grounds, we loaded our bus for the 3½ hour trip to Whitesburg, Kentucky. About halfway there, we found ourselves sitting peaceably at a local Wendy's - having experienced some major mechanical difficulties. Some people might have been discouraged by this, but not our valiant crew. We entertained ourselves by people watching, trying the newest frosty flavors and web-surfing (thanks to the free wi-fi service-who'd have thought!).
Our Welcome. By the time our group arrived in Whitesburg (only 2½ hours behind schedule), we were ready for a good meal. We were warmly welcomed by the folks at Appalshop who would be hosting us during our stay in Kentucky. Rebecca O'Doherty, Director of Appalachian Media Institute, had arranged a down-home pot-luck welcome dinner for us. We met many of the people we'd be spending time with during the week and had the opportunity to ask lots of questions about Appalshop and AMI. After a satisfying meal and some great conversation, it was time to check into the local B&B.
Our Whitesburg Home. The Whitesburg Bed and Breakfast is owned by the town doctor and operated by his assistant/partner. The two beautiful homes where we stayed were magnificent, stately Southern residences, perfectly appointed throughout. With a population of only 1,600, you wouldn't expect the town of Whitesburg to host museum-quality art. However, thanks to Dr. Pelligrini, art is an important part of the community. In addition to prolific displays throughout the homes, the doctor's collection includes newly acquired pieces by Salvador Dali. Unexpected surprises like this made our time in Whitesburg that much more enjoyable.
Mountain-Top Removal. Tuesday morning was spent investigating the coal companies' practice of mining coal through mountain-top removal. Literally blowing off the mountain tops allows the coal companies cheap and easy access to the underlying strata of coal. We had a fantastic opportunity for a "fly over" of the landscape in small prop planes operated by Southwings, a charitable group whose mission is to educate the public about the ecological devastation caused by mountain-top removal and other conservation issues. Pilots Susan and Hap were professional and informative, and delivered a breath-taking birds-eye view of the ecological damage being inflicted on the countryside-something we never could have seen from the ground. We met McKinley, a courageous older gentleman who has been fighting to keep the coal companies off his land. We listened to Terry, a representative of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, recount the story of a family whose water was so polluted it was unfit to bathe in, let alone drink. We saw disturbing photographs taken by photojournalist Paul Corbit Brown, graphically showing the extensive destruction of the land and surrounding waterways. One member of our group was so affected by what she heard and saw that she was brought to tears. I believe that all of us came away with a strong desire to help bring an abrupt halt to this abusive practice. Later that evening, we changed gears, relaxed and discovered the local hangout in Whitesburg, the Summit City Café, where we rubbed elbows with the locals and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
Growing Up in a Coal Town. Our next outing was led by Dr. Bill Turner of Berea College. Dr. Turner grew up in the small mining community of Lynch and he gave us his unique perspective as we toured his school, the local mine and the modest home he grew up in. A friend of his joined us on the front porch of his old house (now owned by his sister), and they gave us an intimate personal view of their customs and experiences growing up. As an African-American reared in rural Appalachia, Dr. Turner experienced racism and segregation first-hand. His father and grandfather were both coal miners, but Dr. Turner's father insisted that his son get an education to ensure that he would never have to work a day in the mines. Listening to Dr. Turner's stories was like taking a step back in time to a place of hardship and challenge we could hardly imagine. Throughout the day, however, his infectious laugh and upbeat personality made the somber topics much easier to absorb.
The Student Films. That evening we viewed three films by AMI interns, which focused on prescription drug abuse, teen pregnancy and the "true [personal] cost" of coal. Dr. Turner was a member of the discussion panel along with Rebecca and the student film-makers. We asked a range of questions and delved into the motivations behind the selected subject matter. All of us came away with a better understanding of the region, the challenges faced by the youth of Appalachia, and the extraordinary talent and commitment of the student filmmakers.
Reflection Circle. The poet laureate of Kentucky, author Gurney Norman, joined us for our final Reflection Circle. He led a discussion of the values and customs of yesteryear versus those of today, and all of us, including the AMI interns and staff, participated in the discussion. Listening to the interns describe their educational experiences was emotional for some of us and made us realize the importance of the work accomplished by Appalshop and AMI. We could appreciate the student interns as the critical thinkers and artists that they have become. We finished the day with an authentic Kentucky evening. Dinner consisted of southern fried catfish (caught that morning) and barbequed pork with cornbread, followed by an intimate bluegrass performance by talented local musicians.
The Land. Finally, on our way back to Asheville, we grabbed the opportunity for a beautiful hike at Bad Branch Falls Nature Preserve, where the unspoiled beauty of the land was breath-taking. Mist snuck around the mountaintops and into the hollers, leaving us quietly alone with our thoughts of the haunting terrain and our full week of experiences in Appalachia. In Asheville, we met for dinner at Mayfel's, where we enjoyed a reunion with former Lodestar employee Catherine Reid and her husband, Luke.
Mission Accomplished. The trip was everything we expected it to be-enormously educational, uplifting and fun. We felt very fortunate that our inaugural Make It Real trip was a successful realization of our organization's mission, and we are proud to have sponsored the full cost of two interns in the AMI Program. All of our travelers spoke eagerly of joining next year's trip - wherever that might take us. We hope you'll decide to join us too!