Country Roads, Coal Mines, and Dancing with Brooms

Jerry, Bridget, Mike, SJ and University of Richmond senior Grace Leonard had an amazing fall break in Welsh County, West Virginia. Grace’s aunt and uncle were so kind to open their home to the SEEDS leadership team and had amazing stories to share about the various educational and environmental problems facing coal country in West Virginia.

On Monday morning they traveled to Big Creek People in Action, a non-profit organization working to meet the needs of McDowell County, which is the southernmost county of West Virginia. Deep poverty basic home repair and development difficult for many McDowell residents, and Big Creek People in Action seeks to help homeowners tackle home repair problems. The SEEDS point person with Big Creek is Marsha, whose big heart and connection to her hometown has pushed her to make McDowell County a better place to live. Marsha took SEEDS on a short driving tour through the county and showed our fall break trip members devastating living conditions- homes were in various states of uninhabitable wreckage, and the community has minimal resources for community advancement. SEEDS met with some students from Davidson College who were working on wall repair for Katie, a War township native who recently replaced her stairs on her back porch with help from Big Creek. Katie is elderly and lives alone, and she had no way to pay for new stairs, and she was worried that she would fall off her porch to the sloped backyard below.  The only usable exit to her home was the front door, and a house fire a few years ago rendered the front door useless as well and one of Katie’s family members died in the blaze.  She is so happy that she now has easier access to her beautiful garden as well as a greater sense of safety in her home.

Next stop on Marsha’s tour was a special visit to her daughter’s home.  85% of land in West Virginia is owed by large railroad corporations, and many families (like Marsha’s daughter) cannot find or afford land. Even though families have often lived on their leased land for generations, lease contracts often include a clause that leasers can ask families to leave at any time.  Marsha has worked with many people who have been forced off of their land because of informal leases, but West Virginia has done nothing to change the system. Marsha’s daughter has not had any problems yet, and she happily showed the leadership team around her home and introduced them to her pet dogs, horses, and alligator (yes… the large kind with sharp teeth)!

The fall break team members also explored West Virginia economic heritage by going on a coal mine tour with a coal miner. They learned how big coal companies mine West Virginia mountains for coal by first hollowing out the mountains- but leaving pillars to support the land mass.  When the company has stripped the mine of its’ available resources, miners break the pillars and collapse the mountain.  Accidental deaths are common during this stage of mountain top removal, and this type of mining produces runoff that is had for the environment. The roads of West Virginia are overrun with huge coal trucks transporting coal from the mines. These trucks contribute to West Virginia’s extremely high proportion of auto accidents.

The weekend ended with flat foot dancing and blue grass music. Chester, a music teacher at the local school, had the whole group dancing and scrambling to find a partner (the last person to dance got stuck partnered with the broom!).

The fall break trip got the leadership team pumped for the Spring break trip.  We are so excited to continue to develop our partnership with Big Creek People in Action and are confidant that the West Virginia trip is going to be a success!

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