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A Personal Journey: Sacramento, California to Beards Fork, West Virginia

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October 6-13, 2012

It’s 4:30 a.m. and Mann (my favorite cab driver) arrived to take me to the airport for my 6 a.m. flight to Chicago Midway airport. I gave him my return flight info and told him I’d call when I arrive back in Sacramento next Saturday. An uneventful flight meant we arrived on time. When I got to my departure gate, I had time for a Starbucks, then on to Charleston. After this flight, I planned to meet up with others for the drive to Beards Fork, West Virginia. But, there is no one waiting in the terminal so I proceed outside and chat with a local resident who recommends visiting the State Capitol while I am in town. I have noticed another passenger sitting at a bench on the phone. I heard “Global Volunteers” so I picked up my travel gear and trotted down to meet Stephanie from Kansas City. She is calling the emergency numbers we have been given and no answer. But, a van with South Appalachian Labor School drives up and it’s for us. The driver, Arte, was very apologetic and loaded us into his van for our 1 ½ hour drive to Beards Fork. When we left the freeway, we were driving on a narrow road with no yellow line. This is a courtesy road where the oncoming car pulls over and waits until you pass. While you are passing, both drivers honk the horn at each other and wave hello. Soon we arrive at the barracks where we are housed for the next week. It’ s next to the old elementary school which houses the labor school, yoga classes, after school care, etc.

Phyllis, our team leader, and the other members of the team, Ruth, Marianna, and John who had arrived earlier, welcomed us and dinner was served buffet style. Jay and Anna were driving and had taken the wrong road so they appeared around 8:30 that evening.

We were shown to our rooms where I found four bunk beds and a chair all to myself. Along with blankets to make the bed. After dinner we spent time getting to know each other and then began slowly drifting off to bed.

Day 1

We had agreed to meet for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. I made bacon and scrambled eggs and Phyllis put biscuits in the microwave for us. Ruth made coffee and we all helped clean up the kitchen. Phyllis put something in the crockpot for the evening meal.

After our breakfast, Phyllis led our meeting and learning session. We will meet every day and each will have an opportunity to do write the day’s journal. I took Sunday, day 1, and made notes to be run off on the computer next door. We learned about Global Volunteers and set our goals for the week. We also discussed how best to reach those goals.

After lunch, Arte arrived to take us on a tour of the area and show us the projects completed by the Labor School. It was an eye-opening experience. Beards Fork is a hamlet of about 200 homes of all sizes and description. The hamlet had no sidewalks, no street lights, no post office and no children. Young couples leave the area as soon as they graduate from high school and only return home so the children can know their grandparents. There are a few pets and one dog sleeping in the middle of the road that refused to move for the oncoming car. So, Arte went around him. There are very few cars in Beards Fork. The Labor School had built many homes and rehabbed or rebuilt many, many more. Some were well maintained, others were not. We also learned about Jenny Lind homes, houses built as company homes by the mining corporations, each with four rooms, divided by a hallway the length of the home. They were not insulated nor did they have any heat so it was a coal stove or bottled gas. The Labor School rehabbed many homes throughout the area and has a waiting list of one year for individual projects such as reroofing.

There is no industry in the area and the few coal mines still in operation were shut down because the price of coal is too low to operate the mines. The high school dropout rate is 38%. Median income is $19,000. Diabetes is rampant among all ages. The doctor comes for a day, once per month. There is no dental or vision care and the ambulance, when needed, is an hour away. The grocery store is 20 miles away in Oak Hill. A car is a necessary commodity because there is no public transportation. You’ll find a church at least every 5 miles and, in one case, we drove past Murphy Church Road, which was the only structure on the road.
After we returned to our quarters, Arte agreed that he would return at 8:30 the next morning to take us to our assignment. Dinner was very good and we spent the evening chatting and Ruth and I played a game of Scrabble. By 10 p.m. the lights went out in the sleeping rooms.

Day 2

At 12:30 a.m., a loud ringing noise awakened all of us and we soon determined that the power had gone out. This loud ringing occurred all night long and sleeping was difficult. We were all up and dressed for the day very early. It was cold – in the 40’s that morning. No heat, no coffee but we could make sandwiches with the aid of our flashlights. We have now learned that Arte is on West Virginia time, which is about 30 minutes after the scheduled time. When he arrives, he learned our power was out, which was weird, since this has not affected anyone else. The back-up generator, which is operated on batteries, is dead so he used a car battery to get the generators back in operation. We had power finally. By this time, it was 10 a.m. and we were 1 ½ hours late our assignment. Phyllis went with me to the tech school where I will be working with GED students. All the other volunteers are dropped off at the work project, which is an elementary school built in 1917 that is being redone into a community center. I met my first student who had absolutely no interest in learning. He preferred to stare out the window. He kept his eye on the clock and was ready to dash out at break time. He remarked several times that it was sure a good day to go fishing. Classes close at 2 p.m. and at 1:55 he was ready to leave. So, Phyllis and I were picked up and taken back to the building project where we waited for the other volunteers to finish for the day. Earlier that morning, Arte had told us it was a 5 minute walk from our site to the work site. Phyllis checked the route as we were driving over and it was 3 miles. Another example of West Virginia time. We returned home to lights, heat and food.

Before dinner, we related our individual experiences. Everyone was tired and ready to relax for a while. I went next door and put my notes from Sunday’s meeting on the computer. This gave me an opportunity to observe the after-school program. The children are bussed to the program where they complete homework under supervision and receive help from the staff when needed. At 6 p.m. they are bussed to their homes. The main purpose of the after school program is to ensure that the children have assistance with homework because it won’t be available in the home. These children live in unincorporated areas such as Page, Kincaid and other hamlets of perhaps 50 homes or less or “in the holler” as it is called.

Day 3

Arte surprisingly arrived this morning at 8:30 and off we went to Oak Hill. Today, I worked with Laurie, a 45 year-old dropout, working toward her GED so she could possibly find a job in this small city. She left school in 9th grade. Laurie could not do math without the aid of her fingers for counting, addition or take-away as she called it. With this great of a need a basic skills teacher was assigned to her. I was re-assigned to Frank, approximately 45 to 50 years old, dropped out of school in 7th grade, and currently serving jail time. He did not tell me until the next day that he was confined to his home from 8:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. and then was picked up by the sheriff and taken to the jail. He told me he was a pot farmer, had been working in the mines or wherever he could find work. His son, 26 years old, was a chef and owned his restaurant and his wife is a registered nurse. Frank started the program on Monday of that week and was doing worksheets and the Plato program on the computer. When I sat with him, the first thing he said to me is “I can’t spell”. So I said, “Ok, we’ll work on that.” He had trouble spelling and his punctuation and language skills were poor. However, we started with the worksheets on language and punctuation and charged forward. (Later that night I dreamed “I before e except after c” along with the other rules of grammar and punctuation.) Next Frank and I proceeded to the Plato program, level 1. He did well and progressed to level 4 in 1 1/2 days. His math skills were good and he is very intelligent and determined to do something with the rest of his life. I have his e-mail address and I found a website where he can order textbooks at half price.

At the end of the day, our volunteer group returned to the bunkhouse for dinner and an evening of entertainment by a country western star, Billy Perry, who was a local boy who had made it in the music business. He has traveled with the Waylon Jennings band for a number of years and also writes and records for himself and other stars in the business. It was a good show.

Day 4

Today, we went about our regular routine. Arte arrived at 8:30 and we are off to our sites. Frank and I are worked on punctuation, colons and semicolons. He picks it up really quickly and I beam with pride. He also gave me some background on the area and on how life is tough when you can’t find a job and don’t have an education. But, he is determined to change that.

Tonight, we are going out to eat at Benny’s in Oak Hill. a ½ lb. hamburger with everything on it and fried. Really good. And Benny’s has a TV with the baseball game, a pool table and country music. I was thankful to catch the last inning of the Giants vs.Tigers game that night.

Day 5

It’s the last day of school since they observe Columbus Day on October 12. So Frank is at level 4 in language skills, ready to move on to higher levels in math, but lacks social studies and is reluctant to deal with it. So, I’m not pushing it because he is so determined that he will do it when he feels right about it. We say our good-byes and wish each other well. I do the same with the other students and staff and I’m picked up and taken back to the worksite. Then, back to the bunkhouse for dinner and we manage to get the TV working. However, I can’t manage to stay awake and I’m off to my bunk.

Day 6

Today is our last day and school is closed. So I go to the worksite with the others. Stephanie has become an expert at drywall and is allowed to hang it without supervision. The others are accomplished painters, sweepers and able to hand over the right tool when asked. I am delegated to do the laundry which consists of sorting through the white tablecloths which I am told were washed, dried and thrown into a pile on the floor. I am setting up tables for an event on Saturday night so I run the tablecloths through the drier, three at a time, to get them rehabilitated. I have 30 tables to cover. During the course of running them through the drier, I find some that are stained. So I asked for stain remover and I will put them in the washer. Well, there is no stain remover and the red tablecloths which are table top size are to be used to throw over the white tablecloth and that takes care of the stained cloths. There is logic to that reasoning. So by lunch time, I have 30 tables with white and red tablecloths. When lunch arrives, I threaten anyone who dares to place anything on a table with dire consequences. They mostly laughed but no one touched a tablecloth.

At the end of the day, we said our goodbyes to the crew, thanked them for tolerating our presence for a week and returned to Beards Fork. Tonight, we are Arte’s guests at Pints and Pies where there are 32 types of pizza on the menu and that many choices in beer. I stuck to the traditional, sausage and onions and it was good.

We said our goodbyes to Arte that evening and we all thanked him profusely for his time and attention through the week.

Day 7

I was awake at 5 a.m. but Stephanie was already up. We made coffee, chatted, finished packing and waited for the others. Ruth, Marianna, Jay and Anna were driving and were gone by 9 a.m. Arte picked up Phyllis, Stephanie and me at noon and drove us to Charleston for our 2:35p.m. flight to Dulles. From there, we would go our separate ways. I had 1 ½ hour wait time and my first stop was at Starbucks where I had a grande white mocha. It was sooooo good. And then the flight home. A welcome ending to an emotional and enlightening experience.


I’m told the Appalachians are very probably the poorest of the poor. That is a true statement. I am truly grateful for my family and friends and for the blessings I have received.

I encourage everyone to find a place to spend a week and help others. It is a wonderful way to travel, meet other volunteers and make a positive impact.

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