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Issue Date:  June 2, 2006

Do helping hands in Appalachia do more harm than good?


My husband, Frank, and I have just spent a year trying to serve the poor of Appalachia, well known as one of the less advantaged parts of this country. We came about this work from the outside in. About 10 years ago, we spent two years working with the poor in Mexico. During that time, NAFTA passed, the war in Chiapas started and the peso went down in value. We saw the poor in Mexico get poorer than ever.

We knew that the poverty in Mexico was not something we could fix through our small efforts. One thing Mexico needed was a change in the government, not a feat that we as outsiders could do. But we thought we might be able to help in our own country. So we returned home and spent a year in Washington, where we worked with policy groups. We had learned from practical experience that what happens in the United States directly impacts the lives of the poor in Mexico. Although we couldn’t change the Mexican government, perhaps, we thought, we could do something to change our own.

I don’t need to belabor how unsuccessful we were. The situation of the poor in Mexico, in all of Latin America and even in our own country has gotten worse, not better, in the past few years.

So at least, we thought then, we could do something for our own poor. To do this, we chose to work with an organization that has been in operation for a long time and has a respected reputation, the Christian Appalachian Project, started by Fr. Ralph Beiting back in 1964.

Christian Appalachian Project

When Fr. Beiting first came to Kentucky in the late ’40s, he was appalled at how badly many people lived. At first, he just gave people food and clothing and arranged housing for them. Then he organized fundraising and gathered volunteers, trying to reach out to anyone in need, not only giving them help but trying to maintain their dignity.

In those days, the people of East Kentucky were either coal miners, disabled or unemployed, or on their way north or west out of the state. Fr. Beiting fell in love with the natural beauty of this part of the country and he genuinely loved the people. There were few Catholics in East Kentucky, and people were often suspicious of Catholics, especially Catholic priests, so he had to work to overcome that problem, too. He even took to street preaching to show that Catholics too were Christian, and he named his organization “Christian” (not “Catholic”) Appalachian Project, making it clearly ecumenical, as it is today.

Things have changed dramatically since Fr. Beiting’s initial work in the ’40s and ’50s. For one thing, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964, and the front lines of the war were right in Appalachia. People came to Appalachia for many reasons. Some came to take pictures and write articles about the deprived mountain people sitting on their rickety porches while their dirty, raggedy children stayed home from school. Others came and volunteered their medical and educational help. But the most significant changes came through government aid in many forms.

These government programs probably helped some people, but ultimately they destroyed the spirit of the proud mountain residents, who used to disdain any outside aid. Today most observers will say that the single greatest harm to the Appalachian people can be said in one word: welfare.

Handouts or hand ups?

The word “welfare” is no longer used, but there are still many commodities and other forms of assistance given to the poor, and most people seem to like such assistance very much. This was perhaps one of the first things we learned as we got to know the East Kentuckians. People say, without embarrassment of any kind, that they “draw,” meaning they receive government assistance. Others are appalled that with the new rules there is a time limit on such assistance. I have even heard some healthy people say they would like to be on disability just so that they would not have to work anymore.

So this is the milieu into which we came into Kentucky. We like Fr. Beiting’s statement that the Christian Appalachian Project attempts to give a hand up, not a handout. And the work that we chose to do with the organization seemed to support this. My husband worked with the housing crew that repairs the homes of the poor. The poor family is supposed to supply “sweat equity” -- some help in the repair from family members or acquaintances -- as well as financial payback for materials, on a long-term plan. However, both of these expectations are often ignored, sometimes because of impossibility (How does one ask an 80-year-old crippled lady to provide sweat equity?) and sometimes because of other concerns on the part of those in charge of the work crew.

My work was to help people get their GEDs and to provide literacy classes for those who needed and wanted them. In Magoffin County, where I worked half the time, more than 60 percent of the people did not have a high school education. Little was expected of students except that they learn.

Other works of the Christian Appalachian Project are much more geared to handouts. Outreach involves providing commodities, donated by many corporations and businesses, to the needy. The organization is supported by a very large list of donors, some of whom have been giving donations to the project for years.

The project’s volunteers also visit the elderly, take them to doctors, provide outings for them and give them supplies. Those who work with the elderly often find that they develop real relationships with these people who may see them as their children or grandchildren. Even so -- and this bothers the volunteers very much -- the elderly may have their own children living right near them who do not help their mothers or fathers. One has to wonder why not. It seems possible that along with losing the pride of not accepting charity, the local people have lost the spirit of family members looking out for each other. Why should they take Momma to the doctor when that nice volunteer will do it for them?

The volunteers want to do this. This is why they came to Appalachia. But how thorny it all gets, and how difficult it is to work with the poor.

There are also huge differences between the organization’s volunteers and employees. Volunteers come from all parts of the country; employees are local. Many, even perhaps most, of the volunteers are Catholics; most employees are Protestants of a fundamentalist type. The volunteers are often better educated and more experienced than some of the employees. In addition, today the number of employees far exceeds the number of volunteers. In fact, all of the project managers, directors and administrators are paid employees. This is not to suggest that any of them are highly paid. Still, this is no longer a charitable organization so much as it is a business.

In an area where jobs are in short supply, the employment the Christian Appalachian Project provides is useful. Employees settle in with a secure job, one in which they feel they are doing good work. Volunteers come for a short and intense time, some as short as a few weeks and others for a year or more. Both groups care deeply about the poor.

Third World of the U.S.

But after a year there, I became convinced that the Christian Appalachian Project is not going to change anyone’s life, and in fact in some cases it will only perpetuate dependence and poverty. Instead of somebody like me teaching GED, what Kentucky needs is better schools. Instead of employment with the Christian Appalachian Project, Kentuckians need more job opportunities and improvement in those jobs that are already available. Kentucky needs more people who are appalled at mountaintop removal, the successor to strip mining (although much worse), rather than people who seem to feel they are helpless to do anything about it.

Some have called Kentucky the Third World of the United States, and in many ways it is. The state is rich in natural resources that are being removed and are benefiting others, not the local people. The people here are given meager government aid to keep them quiet, and they, like people we have seen in poor countries, believe that they can do nothing to change their situation.

Nor can Christian Appalachian Project volunteers. Only the people of Kentucky themselves can change things, and if the organization gets involved, it becomes that dirty word, “political.” Some donors will probably stop giving money if the volunteers and their participants start marching to Frankfort to protest the poor schools, the roads that are constantly being destroyed by overloaded coal trucks, the sludge from the mountaintop removals that poisons their rivers and destroys their homes.

Once again we are discovering what we found in Mexico: It is the people themselves who must change things. Kentuckians must be upset enough to want to change their own lives.

One of the things that struck me when I came here to Kentucky was how lacking in dreams and ambitions the people of Kentucky are. It is almost as if the hills limit their views of the world as well as their own horizons. Now there is something very good about being willing to live simply and without desire for material gain. But it is sad to see so much unused talent, so much that is so good lost.

As in Third World countries, the local religious groups tend to support a quiescent lifestyle. The vast majority of people are believers, going to a variety of churches, most of which are of an evangelical, Pentecostal or fundamentalist sort. They believe that God has a plan and provides for everything. I have known people who would not even look for jobs, trusting that God will make one available when and if the time is right. Others expect God to provide a home for them, as if God is a real estate agent. Whatever happens, they believe, is God’s plan. This has the effect that people do not strive to change or improve, only to accept.

This too seems to be part of the poverty of the people, the curbing of their desires and hopes.

Yet one awakens such desires in people at a risk. It is hard for anyone to leave East Kentucky because their families have owned property here for many generations, even though the land might be on a steep hillside and basically unusable. But like native lands elsewhere, it is sacred ground, not least because their ancestors are buried there. As you drive through the hills and “hollers” (hollows) you cannot help but see little clusters of tombstones on the hills behind the houses. If people aspire to other things, to a university or a big city or a profession, they are accused of “rising above their raising.”

Many East Kentuckians have disdain for those who live in cities or who are part of the great world they see on television. Just as television in foreign countries gives a distorted view of American life, so does television as seen in Kentucky give a false impression of the rest of the world. They see only immorality and loose living. What upsets East Kentuckians is not a war in Iraq or a catering to the wealthy at the expense of the poor, even though they themselves are poor and suffering as a result. No, they get upset when the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed in public buildings or prayer has been removed from schools while evolution is taught. These people really call this “a Christian nation,” although if they knew more about the views of our early founders they would not say that so loudly.

Ultimately, I learned in East Kentucky that it is not a simple task to help the poor. Even using the term “poor” for these people is problematic. Who wants to be defined only by their financial status?

During our year there we came to love these people and these hills. They are truly beautiful people living in a beautiful part of the country. We wonder how we can preserve so much that is so good and still enrich their lives. There is no easy answer.

Lucy Fuchs is a professor emerita of education from St. Leo University in Florida. She lives in Brandon, Fla.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2006

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