Recently I read an article about life in the Appalachian Mountains that lingered in my thoughts, with a mix of emotions hovering over and within me. Life in Appalachia was portrayed with gloom and despair, thus leaving the reader with a feeling of hopelessness. The article implied that people who were born into poverty didn’t have a choice to live otherwise. The picture that was painted was a stereotypical view of Appalachia that many have and continue to exploit to gain popularity whether it be an audience for their blog, for social media publicity, money, or their name in lights. What the author of this very derogatory article neglected to divulge were the joys of growing up in the Appalachian Mountains.
Over the years authors, filmmakers, and actors in Hollywood have profited through exploitation of Appalachia choosing to focus on what small towns “don’t” have. Films have been made with careful selection of the poorest part of towns carefully and intentionally divulging only dilapidated buildings, rather than new structures, or renovated buildings that houses independent thriving businesses. Many times the focus is often on poor housing in small towns rather than homes that proudly stand boasting beautiful manicured lawns, hardy vegetable gardens, luscious rolling green mountains, blooming flowers, and carefully trimmed hedges and trees. When the media chooses to focus on the negative aspects, or poverty, which by the way exists in all towns whether they’re large or small…the reader is left with a gloomy feeling of sorrow, despair and almost a feeling of doom.
Appalachian people are often-times portrayed as being illiterate, undereducated, and ignorant people who are less fortunate than those living elsewhere. Manchester, located in Clay County, is a small town in Appalachia where I grew up, raised my family, and still reside today has been recently been accused of being one of the hardest places to grow up in the United States, as well as being a community where citizens are expected to have a shorter lifespan than those living elsewhere. I find both of these statements to be misleading, offensive, and also stereotypical. I find myself smiling when I reflect on my childhood. I don’t recall life being a hardship, doom, gloomy, unhappy time in my life. Today, I enjoy sharing my memories of growing up in Kentucky through stories, both oral and written.
My memories are filled with fun escapades of playing outside, working in the garden, helping can fruits and vegetables, listening to countless stories told to me by my grandparents, afternoons sitting in the shade with family just enjoying the serenity of the mountains, playing with cousins, enjoying wonderful cooked meals from the vegetables that we raised, and learning wonderful skills from my mother and grandmother. We didn’t live within city limits, and still do not. We were raised in a rural community that enjoyed farming. My grandparents had a small store that was often referred to as the heart of our little community. Many of my family members still reside in this same neighborhood. I was raised to know that I had choices, and also to believe that I could be anything that I wanted to be. I was encouraged to always try to better myself by reading, learning, working hard, and also by believing in myself.
I was raised in one of the poorest parts of the state of Kentucky. What? We grew up poor! No one told me that! I wasn’t aware that we grew up in a poverty-stricken area. No, again, I was raised to dream and dream big! I could be anything that I wanted to be. I could be a mother, I could be a Christian, I could be a teacher, I could be an author, I could be whatever I chose to be! I was taught good moral values, about Jesus, how to work the land to feed my family, how to always believe in myself, to be proud of my heritage, to have a plan for my future, and if I got knocked down…get back up! Instead of profiting from negative doom, gloom, and despair…I prefer to divulge the wonders of the Appalachian Mountains, the joys, the beauty, the opportunities, growth, success, and the wonderful mountains that I am proud to call home.
Again, I was never told that we were poor, or that we lived in an impoverished area, and never told that I couldn’t better myself. As a public school teacher, I always passed this same advice to my students. I always encouraged my students year after year that they could be anything that they wanted to be, to reach for the stars, to believe in themselves as I too believed in them. Today, as a college professor, I am still relaying that same positive message.
Many might say that small Appalachian towns have nothing to offer. I disagree. So, what does our small county of Clay have to offer? The beauty of the mountains, rich farm soil, beautiful pastures for livestock to graze, farm fresh eggs, distinguished schools, top-rated teachers, private Christian schools, a multitude of welcoming churches, book clubs, a well stocked public library, quilting clubs, pumpkin patches, ATV rides, elk hunts, successful local authors, artists, parks, employment at the federal prison, kayaking, fishing, local shopping, home cooked meals at locally owned restaurants, farmers’ markets, Main Street markets, grass-fed beef, fresh venison, beautiful walking trails, beautiful homes, friendly people, smiles, and a welcoming environment. One valuable opportunity that goes unmentioned in many articles about our small town of Manchester is the opportunity to complete a college degree at Eastern Kentucky University, which is located within city limits. These are only a few things that residents and visitors have to enjoy. Again, beauty lies within the eye of the beholder, happiness with the heart of the dreamer, and success within the heart and desire of the believer.
I have been asked many times over the years why I haven’t moved…but my answer is and will always remain the same…”I can’t imagine growing up or living anywhere else than in the beautiful Kentucky mountains. As the title of my first book states, Kentucky is…The Mountains I Call Home.”