Report from Appalachia: A Close Up Lookby Lisa Wolch, World Vision U.S.
World Vision Appalachia hosted a vision trip from Thursday, October 16th—Saturday, October 18th to bring awareness to the plight of generational poverty in the rural region surrounding our field site in Philippi, West Virginia. Five women from the Charlotte chapter joined U.S. Programs staff from Appalachia and our national office in Federal Way for a close up look at the work World Vision is doing to ensure children in this under-resourced area receive access to the resources and education they deserve to experience life in all its fullness.
We were blessed to enjoy the extraordinary beauty of West Virginia with its vibrant fall foliage on full display throughout the trip. Philippi, is in the north central part of the state and has a population of 2,870. Most of the people who live in the region are descendants of strong, independent, hard-workers who made their living from the coal and timber industries which have since eroded over the last thirty years. Energy companies have recently begun moving into the area to access alternate fuel sources from fracking, bringing with them a highly skilled, temporary workforce. While this is seemingly a positive economic turn for small businesses, it provides no solution for unemployed workers who do not possess the education nor the skills necessary to compete for these jobs.
Our vision trip kicked-off Thursday with presentations from the Appalachia staff who shared an overview of the work we do in providing resources for basic needs, education, the missions program, and training for youth-focused organizations. The presentations were highly interactive and prompted great discussions on World Vision’s community development approach. The most in-depth presentation was on KidREACH, World Vision’s after-school tutoring and mentoring program offered to students in two elementary schools and one high school in Barbour County. This program works in cooperation with the schools and with teachers providing individualized learning improvement plans to the tutors to help students reach grade level expectations. Enrichment activities are also included with hands-on projects such as agriculture, computers, robotics, culinary arts, and dance. Also, with food insecurity being an issue for most families, the program includes a nutritional meal to ensure students do not go without an evening meal. The Education and Family Specialist position, is supported through funding from Women of Vision and is a key role that serves as a liaison between schools, families, and communities, providing resources and training to parents on important issues such as parenting skills, problem solving, and educational planning for their children.
We were joined by two mothers of KidREACH students who shared their personal stories on what this program has done for their children’s academic success and confidence. We also heard from two passionate educators from our KidREACH site at Mt. Vernon Elementary who shared how the program is so fully integrated into their school curriculum with 50 of their 54 students attending the after school program.
Dr. Joseph Super, the Superintendent for Barbour County Education (so aptly named!), provided some interesting insights into the challenging realities students in this area face. He emphasized the importance of parental involvement with their child’s school and friends and that setting solid and clear boundaries for their children that will support classroom learning. As Dr. Super explained, “We have many parents who are high-school dropouts themselves which causes them to infect their child’s view of their future. This sets in motion a “crab bucket mentality”, whereby parents either knowingly or not hold their child back from attaining opportunities that would take them outside their rural boundaries. When children are without support at home or lack encouragement to succeed, they are at risk of dropping out of school when it gets too hard”. Dr. Super’s talk brought to light how breaking the cycle of generational poverty takes more than providing children access to a quality education, but requires support and skill building opportunities for parents as well.
Next stop was a visit to New Covenant Church, the KidREACH site in the little town of Junior. Junior has a population of 520 people of which 39.8% of the children age 18 and younger live below the poverty line. KidREACH serves 27 students from Junior Elementary School out of a total enrollment of 122 students. The Charlotte chapter purchased warm winter coats that were sized and labeled for each of our KidREACH students. This has become an annual outreach for this chapter as they are well aware of the extreme weather that keeps this region blanketed in snow from November to March. The children were eager to try on their new coats and were nearly just as interested in their treat bags they also received.
Friday began with a time to hear from Romanita Hairston, V.P. for U.S. Programs, on what poverty really looks like in the U.S. and how the access to or the lack of a quality education is tied to economic challenges or success. A passionate and engaging conversation ensued with interest expressed on how WOV can be advocates for our work in Appalachia and across our domestic platform.
We then journeyed two hours south through winding roads to visit Webster County Memorial Hospital which has a strong and unique partnership with World Vision Appalachia’s warehouse. Serving a county of just over 9,000 people, Webster Hospital has received medical equipment and office furnishings from World Vision which the administration proudly showed our group as we toured this 15-room hospital and outpatient clinic. Most of the serious traumas must be flown by helicopter to medical facilities two hours away, but this hospital is virtually the hub for most social services offered in the county.
They also run a summer health camp for youth, which according to a few youth we met, is “the best camp ever” and a “highlight of the summer”. The hospital staff explained that there is a serious substance abuse issue in this county which contributes to more than 230 children ending up in protective custody each year. The hospital’s small mental health services department works tirelessly to help families through a variety of issues to prevent children from being innocent victims. It was wonderful to see yet another example of the type of strong community partnerships World Vision has in this region.
The last day of our vision trip was planned by the Charlotte women who have long-standing and close ties to our work and have helped many, many Appalachian families. Girls Camp was the brainchild of the Charlotte chapter and has been an annual summer tradition for 12 years in Philippi. One of the blessings of Girls Camp is the relationships formed between the women and the girls and seeing the girls mature as they return each year. So, Saturday was a reunion party held at the warehouse which included pumpkin decorating, jewelry making, lunch, and great fellowship. It was a privilege to see these women of God interacting with the girls with such love, joy and encouragement and watch the girls soak up the attention. No matter their circumstances, these young girls, like all children being served by World Vision, are experiencing the love of God through actions that demonstrate they are valued. As we parted ways, we recognized that God’s hand was evident throughout our time together and that it is important to listen to how He may be prompting us to act to be the hands and feet of Christ. While this trip drew WOV partners only from the Charlotte chapter, we were unanimous in our desire to plan a trip next spring in hopes that many more WOV will take advantage of this transformational experience.