Now that the country has once again been reminded of a life taken much too early and so many promises left unfulfilled, it is time to start thinking about restoring the hope and memories of those dreams and the man who dared to dream them. I speak of John F. Kennedy and what we might do to honor his legacy for the next fifty years.
Everyone who is old enough to have them has offered their "where I was when I heard that he'd been shot" recollections. Yep, me too. I was in my eighth grade social studies class. As soon as the news reached our school, we were quickly sent home, and my brother and I spent the next several days gathered around the small black and white screen in the living room. We were riveted to the news and transfixed by the never-ending flood of tears streaming down my mother's cheeks. We thought she'd never stop crying. We cried too, and perhaps longer than we would have, just because we knew how much pain my parents seemed to be in. It hurt us to watch them hurt so much.
JFK embodied an optimism and a youthful exuberance that was supposed to lift many boats and guide the country in new directions. He traveled the country and gave voice to those who were seeking different solutions to the problems the nation was facing. As we were reminded by several recent news retrospectives, as candidate and President he spent a good deal of time in West Virginia and left an imprint on a county that has become an integral part of my life and my foundation's work. Kennedy traveled to McDowell County, West Virginia in 1960 and met with the residents there who were skeptical of the Massachusetts maverick. The skepticism soon turned to adoration and that coal-mining county embraced him and his dream. The people believed that his presidency would transform their State and their County. In 1960, McDowell was thriving and the residents had great hopes for this new, young politician and his insights. At that time, McDowell was the third-largest county in the State. Coal was king and that's where the jobs were. But Kennedy saw that Appalachia was headed in the wrong direction. He promised to help.
We all know what happened to President Kennedy. What we all need to know -- but few of us do -- is what happened to McDowell County. The population fell from 71,000 to 21,000. Most of the coal mines were shuttered and that meant that jobs were and are few and far between. Today in McDowell, poverty is a fact of life. Isolation is a fact of life. There are no new homes being built there. There are no restaurants opening there. There are no jobs relocating there. There is decay.
McDowell is a place that finds 72 percent of its students living in a household without gainful employment. This is a place that finds 59 percent of the children live in homes with no biological parent present. Nearly a third of the residents of McDowell live in poverty. This County has the highest instance of prescription drug overdoses in the U.S. Many who could, have left. For those who are left behind the picture is devastatingly bleak. Life expectancy is the lowest in the nation in McDowell for men. For women, it's the second lowest.
And, with this reality comes the other sobering truth that there is widespread hunger in McDowell. Fighting hunger is the focus of my Foundation's work. An initiative spearheaded by Gail Manchin (the former First Lady of W. Virginia) called Reconnecting McDowell is working to enhance the educational wellbeing of McDowell's kids. We are proud members of that initiative. And that initiative has led us to other, long-term involvement that focuses on ending the lifecycle that is hunger. We believe that doing so is helping to fulfill the mission of the young President from Massachusetts. In 1961, an unemployed coal worker with 13 children living in the town of Welch (the County seat of McDowell) was the nation's first food stamp recipient. The issue of hunger has been a persistent one there.
The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger has been engaged on the ground in McDowell for over a year now. We are working with the good people in the County (and statewide) on a new vision to eradicate senior hunger in McDowell. It will take time. Lots of time. It will take perseverance. Lots of that, too. It will take faith, resources, and courage to get this job done. But we are firmly committed to heeding the Kennedy call: asking and answering what we can do for our country. We must be active participants in making a difference -- community by community. And, we must all be a part of it in order for it to succeed. Our approach at NFESH is to work within the fabric of the community with the local stakeholders to share our time, energy and expertise to help them rediscover their resources that will ensure our shared success.
The question has been asked of me whether it is realistic to think that "outsiders" can go to a place like McDowell and make a difference. My foundation and I intend to answer that question the same way that the outsider from Massachusetts did -- not with words but with actions, not from a distance but looking the people in the eye and taking their hands. That is how we will honor the legacy. That is how we will honor our fellow Americans. We fully intend to succeed. For more information about how you can help us end senior hunger in McDowell, please email me at email@example.com.