Joining the Family in Appalachia
Small towns are like big families.
And the Samaritan’s Feet mission team serving throughout McDowell County, West Virginia instantly saw this in action.
As the caravan of trucks made their way down the winding, wet mountain roads, the team arrived at their first distribution in Northfork, West Virginia. The hard morning rain didn’t stop people from walking and driving up to get their new shoes.
The team met Ms. Renee, who was so overjoyed with her new shoes, that she came back multiple times with neighbors, friends, and family so that they could share in the joy. Ms. Renee didn’t have a vehicle and walked up to the distribution site all those times saying, “It’s just good to have something comfy on your feet.”
Next, the team met a father who had the shoe sizes of his children saying he couldn’t “wait to put these shoes on their beds when they got home from school.” And although the team didn’t see the reactions of those children, what a wonderful moment for his family: the dad gets to be the hero as he gives this special treat to his kids.
And then the team met Ms. Yolanda, who takes care of her elderly mother in Northfork, who said, “Thank you so much for thinking of us. It’s so poor here and this is so nice for us.”
What is surprising, however, is that Northfork and the surrounding towns in the county weren’t always poor. McDowell County was a desirable destination and was once the “largest coal-producing county in the United States” with 100,000 people residing there in 1950 (Charleston Gazette-Mail, 2013).
But today, 33.3% of the population in McDowell County lives below the poverty line—nearly double the rate of West Virginia overall (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018).
Mr. Donald, a long-time resident of McDowell County, resides in the same coal miners house that he grew up in. He only recently got electricity and running water in his home. Despite these conditions, he speaks with enthusiastic optimism about his home, town, and community. His big smile and gracious attitude are contagious.
Upon telling the team his story, he sweetly told us, “You have to have hope to cope.”
Most times, hope is considered a prompt that pushes people to go beyond their “normal,” to pursue big dreams and make big changes. But here in McDowell County, Mr. Donald tells us that it may mean something a little different. It may mean you need hope to just manage your daily life in that area.
Because life is a little tougher there.
McDowell County is classified as a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning residents live without easy access to fresh, healthy food (Charleston Gazette-Mail, 2018). The team noticed there were no big grocery stories, and also, there were just one or two locations to purchase shoes in the county, which could be over 20 miles away for some residents.
“Graphs and tables can hardly relate the acutely personal story of a child in a remote valley, his horizon of opportunity limited to the enclosing hills; nor the despair of his father, who, idled by forces beyond his control and seeing no prospect of future employment, must live month in and month out with the vision of that child repeating his own history…” (Appalachia: A Report By the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission, 1964).
Mr. Donald noted the importance of speaking hopeful words to children in Appalachia, to promote opportunities, and not limit their dreams, saying, what you say to a child, they believe.”
So, with each pair of shoes distributed throughout West Virginia, the team also gave a “Hope Note.” These “Hope Notes” included encouraging words which have been submitted from individuals around the world.
Samaritan’s Feet partnered with School for Life, an organization based in Gary, West Virginia that serves the needy in the Appalachia area by changing hopelessness to optimism through the encouragement and guidance for them to be active, creative, contributing members of their communities.
School for Life Director Marjie Moore describes how she saw first-hand the impact words can have on children in this community:
“I met a little girl named Destiny, pretty little blonde-hair blue-eyed girl. She told me one day ‘I’m poor.’ And I told her, ‘no, you’re not.’ She said, ‘momma tells me we’re poor.’ Later, Destiny told her mom about that conversation and her mom called me. I told that mom, ‘you are not poor. You may live in a situation without a lot of money, but when you tell her you’re poor, she’s going to believe it. Let her grow up, have a life, and then she can decide if she’s poor or not.’ And when I told Destiny that too, it was like a whole light came upon her face. Because if someone tells you you’re stupid all the time, what are you going to believe? What comes out your mouth is more powerful than anything that you can do. Because it’s lasting.”
Moore was living not too far away from the Appalachia area in Virginia, but was unaware of the needs just across state lines.
“I own a restaurant in my hometown in Virginia. A gentleman came in and explained to me that he was going on a mission trip. I asked what country and he said he was going to Appalachia in West Virginia. I remember saying to him, ‘why would you go there?’ And he said, ‘because it’s a very impoverished area.’ This was total news to me.”
After a trip down to Gary to see the needs for herself, she decided to stay.
“Curiosity brought me here, and these kids kept me here. These kids here think no one cares about them,” Moore said.
As the team served in nearby Iaeger next, a child in the backseat of a car said, “Are these mine? There are socks in there, too!” after receiving his bag with new shoes.
And although it was again a rainy morning, it again didn’t stop families from coming to get new shoes. In fact, the estimated population of Iaeger is 230 people. Samaritan’s Feet distributed approximately 150 pairs of shoes. 65% of the town got new shoes in one day.
As each car approached the Samaritan’s Feet tent, the team cheered in excitement to serve and have conversations with those who received shoes. As we gathered sizes from the drivers, the team had the opportunity to get to know them, what they did for work, have they always lived here, and about their families. After chatting with one gentleman about his frequent hunts in the area, he came back later and brought some pictures.
The team was now a part of the family.
Many who were driving up came with a list of sizes so that their neighbors and friends, who didn’t have cars, could also receive shoes. One individual let us know that he was picking up shoes for his 80-year-old neighbor, who didn’t have any shoes at all.
Tara Fisher decided to go on the mission trip to Appalachia after hearing a similar story about not having shoes from her co-worker at Lineberger Orthodontics: “she told us about growing up in Mexico and her parents would go to work in the United States. While they were working there, they would send shoes back home. Oftentimes they wouldn’t fit, but she had to make them work. After hearing that story, I realized there are so many people who don’t have shoes. And I wanted to go on this trip to help.”
The last shoe distribution was in Gary. The sun was finally shining and the team was excited to serve in the place that had been home for them the past several days.
One of the first people to walk up to the distribution impacted everyone.
“A man walked down the steep hill to our distribution in Gary. He had a big smile on his face, a sweet toothless grin. He had on a pair of shoes that he had been wearing for over 10 years. It was his only pair of shoes,” Fisher said.
The team got his shoe size and handed him his brand new pair of shoes. The man then sat on the ground to show just how much these new shoes meant to him. He pulled off his old ones and showed them to everyone—they were falling apart and the soles were peeling completely off, almost non-existent.
These moments are special. Because right there, in that moment, this man’s daily life drastically changed. He doesn’t have to be in pain when he walks. He can be proud of himself as he walks and works around town.
It was a moment that was expected, yet unexpected. And those types of moments are unforgettable.
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