Ask a person about Appalachia, and their answer will likely amaze you. Outsiders may grimace, telling you about poverty and economic depression, an unhealthy affinity for coal, lack of education, and so on. Insiders, though, might tell you about the close-knit community, respect for the land, rich cultural heritage, and a passion for the place and its people. Growing up in Appalachia taught me to be a helper, a doer, an out-of-the-box thinker, and to give back to my "community" because so much has been graciously given to me.
My Appalachian childhood was typical: My time was divided between visiting two sets of grandparents, one who lived in the remnants of a coal mining camp known as Kay Jay, and the other in Stinking Creek, aptly named because the creek branched off from a tannery -- before the days of environmental regulation, of course. I wasn't raised solely by my parents, I was raised with the help of a proverbial village: a host of grandparents, aunts, uncles, extended family, teachers, friends and neighbors who pitched in when my parents weren't available.
An education won't always spare you from poverty; neither will employment. My mother was a college-educated nurse and my father always had a full-time job. In fact, in 2011 unemployment rates in Kentucky were only .7 percent higher than the national average of 8.9 percent. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, workers in the Appalachian region of Kentucky make roughly half of the national per capita income. I can remember my parents running out of toilet paper before pay day and being sent to our neighbors to borrow a roll. Looking back I should have been more grateful that we didn't run out of food. We were beating the statistics; it is estimated that one out of every four children in Appalachia lives with food insecurity. It was in these acts of kindness that I realized the true meaning of the biblical phrase, "Love thy neighbor." I definitely grew up poor relative to the rest of the United States, but my childhood naivety kept me from realizing it. I never saw the disparity between more affluent places and our community, and I certainly never feared that I would be cold, hungry, or unable to attend school.
State and regional statistics can mask levels of local distress. In Knox County, Kentucky, where I grew up, unemployment was 12.1 percent in 2013. Roughly 30 percent of the population still lives at or below poverty level. When poverty rates are that high, everyone is affected in some way. Teachers are worrying about students having winter coats, and they realize the meals a student receives at school might be the only hot meal he/she will eat all day. Both of these realities do not go unnoticed by students' peers, adding a psychological dimension to living in poverty.
I left rural Appalachia to pursue opportunity in the "big city" -- not big by global standards; I settled in Lexington, Kentucky. I traveled the country and the world. I began to see just how poor my hometown was, but also how much richer it was compared to villages in the farthest reaches of the globe. I got my first glimpse of extreme poverty while living in Bogota, Colombia; families scouring our trash nightly looking for scraps of food or things that could be sold, and mothers counting pennies to buy pans of rice to feed themselves and their children.
The value of community is an essential part of who I am, and a deep rooted trait for most Appalachians. I was taught the value of helping others in distress. Tight knit communities support each other. We reach out to neighbors when they need help, sharing food, money and our most precious gift, time. Without the help and support of neighbors, none of us would be able to get by. Community has always been defined by proximity, but technology has removed distance, bringing the whole world within our reach. Whether a child is born in Africa, Asia, or even around the corner in Appalachia, they deserve access to clean water, food, safe living conditions and the opportunity to receive an education.