HARLAN — Amid the deepening gloom of layoffs from Eastern Kentucky coal mines, Rie Whitfield and Kathy Bianchi decided to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.
A whole bunch of candles, actually.
The two came up with an idea to sell coal-themed decorative candles and use the proceeds to pay electricity bills for Harlan County miners laid off during the slump in the regional coal industry, which has wiped out thousands of jobs.
They started with a goal of raising $5,000, but people who had heard about the idea through social media started asking for the candles before the first shipment came in.
The project has raised $16,000 so far, which includes a $2,500 donation from Kentucky Utilities, Whitfield said.
Now they've set their sights on $20,000.
"It's been crazy, but exciting," Whitfield said. "We were hoping to help a little bit, but I think we're going to help a lot."
The Goose Creek Candle Company in Casey County makes the candles, which sell for $20.
The company is donating most of its profits from the candles to the project, which is being managed by a group called Harlan 20/20, said Micah Meece, the son of Goose Creek owners Chuck and Tammy Meece.
Meece said the company wanted to aid the miners, but the project also is helping the company recover from a fire in May that destroyed its production facility.
The coal candles are on sale at several locations in Harlan County. They also are available at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington and through the candle company online, Meece said.
"The candles have done phenomenal," he said, with orders going to several states.
Whitfield and Bianchi are members of Harlan 20/20, which has carried out a number of civic projects, including cleaning up vacant buildings, putting hanging baskets in downtown Harlan and arranging for a new welcome sign for the city.
One night after a movie, the two started talking about how the group might help laid-off miners, and hit on the idea of paying their electric bills.
Most of the state's electricity originates from coal, after all.
"We were trying to think of something different that they all needed," said Whitfield, a retired speech pathologist whose late husband ran a coal company.
It wasn't clear at first how they would pull off the project. Bianchi said she started thinking about ways to get jars and candle-making equipment, but fate took a hand.
When Whitfield told her daughter and son-in-law about the idea, it turned out he knew Meece.
Whitfield, whom Bianchi describes as the Energizer Bunny, called Meece to pitch the idea to help laid-off miners. He quickly agreed Goose Creek would partner with Harlan 20/20, Whitfield said.
They had samples in a week.
"It was just like it all fell into place so easily we couldn't believe it," Bianchi said.
Brandon Pennington, director of the Harlan Tourist and Convention Commission, designed a label for the candles, using a photo of a coal train by Brandon Goins and one of the mottoes supporters use to describe coal's value: Coal Keeps The Lights On.
The candles come in Goose Creek's three top fragrances, but the wax is dyed black to represent coal.
Members of Harlan 20/20 had begun promoting the candles before learning the first shipment would be later than anticipated.
Whitfield and Bianchi drove to Knoxville one night to pick up the candles because so many people were asking about them, Bianchi said.
There has been a feeling of depression over the coal layoffs, Bianchi said; people got excited about the candle project because they saw it as a way to help miners.
"I've never seen such a frenzy," said Bianchi, who has been in retail sales for 30 years. Her family operates Southern Wholesale, a building-supply store which is one of the Harlan locations selling the candles.
Whitfield said all the money that comes to Harlan 20/20 will go toward paying the electricity bills of laid-off miners. The group is working with the local employment office and community action agency to get names of people to help.
The group hopes to keep the project going all winter, Whitfield said.
"We're going to keep pushing," she said.
Coal-themed candles are available at >/Goosecreekcandle.com/Coal-Candles/