Charities flock to Martin County; poverty defies their efforts

jcheves@herald-leader.comNovember 16, 2013 

INEZ — Apart from government aid, many private charities send money, volunteers, free medical care and truckloads of donated food and clothes to Martin County each year.

Their names blur together: the Appalachia Service Project, Appalachia Reach Out, the Christian Appalachian Project and the Rockin' Appalachian Moms Project, to name but a few.

"The problem is, the need out there is just so huge that you don't feel like you can get your arms around it," said Jack Burch, who ran the nonprofit Appalachian Leadership and Community Outreach in the 1970s, assigning college students to anti-poverty work in Eastern Kentucky. "And generally, the region feels like it's even worse off today."

Writing in 1967, Kentucky journalist John Fetterman observed: "Appalachia is Mecca for those driven — both by demons and by self-guilt — to do unto somebody, somehow. So for decades, Appalachia has been done unto."

This summer, the doers included Brianna Callahan, 21, a senior at Pennsylvania State University.

Callahan oversaw hundreds of volunteer college students from the Appalachia Service Project as they repaired 13 dilapidated homes around Inez, the Martin County seat, some of them barely more than shacks hidden in the woods. Another ASP team fixed as many homes down the road in Warfield, in eastern Martin County.

The ASP, based in Johnson City, Tenn., spent $6.4 million last year to improve housing in the Appalachian Mountains. In summer 2012, Callahan worked with the group on homes in Letcher County. College friends asked why she didn't volunteer in Nicaragua, say, or another Third World country. Appalachia's needs are just as great, she said.

"It's been hard to wrap my head around," she said in August while negotiating the group's van down a narrow, bumpy road in a Martin County hollow. "There's not a lot of opportunity out in these coal counties."

Families greeted Callahan with hugs as she climbed out of the van.

"That ASP helps Martin County more than anybody in Martin County does, and they're not even from Martin County," said Loretta Nelson, 44, a former sawmill worker.

Nelson shares a weathered four-room house with her 17-year-old daughter at the end of a dirt walking path. The ASP students — with minimal training and a modest supply budget — gave it a new roof, ceiling plaster and flooring this summer. The house might not be warm this winter, but it shouldn't be as cold as it has been in the past.

Nelson beat long odds. More than 100 homeowners applied for help from the ASP, some for the third or fourth consecutive year. Their handwritten pleas filled a plastic binder that Callahan kept on a shelf at Inez Middle School, where her crews slept in sleeping bags. There were only so many volunteers to go around, and only so much time.

In a county with thousands of permanently idle adults, additional repairs will wait until the youths come back with their hammers next year.

"I've enjoyed my work out here, but I don't kid myself. It's a Band-Aid," Callahan said while packing her bags at summer's end to return to college. "Homes falling apart is just a symptom. Poverty is the problem, and we're not really addressing the problem."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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