Sunday, August 7, 2011


It has been exactly one year since we left Red Bird Mission and returned to our Hoosier home. The anniversary fills my mind with memories of the people and places that inhabited that year. In some ways our mountain experiences were parenthetical in our lives, brief and intransigent. In other ways they were so integral to our lives that we cannot imagine our be-ing without them. My journal is necessarily incomplete; after all, one cannot write of every experience nor share every picture, person, or place that touched us. It struck me that I had forgotten some painful moments of the journey and thus did not include them. Moments like being robbed soon after our arrival, of aching loneliness for family and friends, for the deep sense of isolation caused by closely hemmed mountains and forests, for the pain of accusations from the community while Red Bird struggled for its footing, for the need to sometimes leave the mountains in order to breathe freely again. But the human soul is so flexible and the journey so wonderful that these moments gave way to remarkable peace and to deep gratitude for the privilege that we knew was ours. We may have left little mark on the mountains, but they left a big mark on us.

Red Bird has changed in the last year. Drs. Lynn and Sharon Fogleman saw their last patients at the Clinic on Friday, July 29. They will be leaving for Africa in early 2012 to bring health services to the community of Yei in South Sudan. Contracting the Clinic services provided a structure that allows them to leave as another physician steps in to continue care in a seamless manner; I feel good that this can happen so smoothly. Dr. Lamar Keiser, long-time dentist, retired at the end of June. He continues to come to Red Bird two days a week from his home in Danville to provide patient care. The Mission continues to recruit a dentist to fill his shoes chairside. The dental lab sits rather quiet and remains an opportunity as yet unfulfilled. The School continues in its K-12 format with a greatly reduced budget; music remains an integral part of student life there. All other services remain in place as Red Bird continues to regain its financial footing and looks for ways to continue meeting human needs. The mountains remain unmoved, mists still roll in and dissolve again along their edges, the elk roam freely, people still live and love in the shadows of the Daniel Boone. The Red Bird River still springs from its limestone bed and moves inexorably to the Kentucky River and the great waters beyond. The circle of life seems little changed, but for one brief moment we stepped into another stream and made a tiny ripple.

For more information about the work at Red Bird Mission visit their website at Better yet, go for a visit. Best of all, stay for a while and roll up your sleeves. You might notice a tiny ripple.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Many Thanks

A Red Bird workteam loaded us up in no time.
Only a child could have so much fun in the middle of a move. Grandson Noah played happily for hours in the tunnels and forts he created from our emptied boxes.
The mechanics of moving are always daunting. Our move to Kentucky meant downsizing considerably, so we sorted and then gave away, sold, or packed every one of our belongings. I've written elsewhere about the impact of seeing one's life laid out for sale on the front lawn; it's just not pretty either inside or out. The move back to Indiana reversed the process, but it was still much the same. We sorted and packed and enlisted the energies once again of a work team for loading and then relied again on friends to unload at our Indiana house. What kind friends we have! They handled this stuff twice in one year and never uttered a grumbling word. We settled back into our neighborhood as if we'd never left, rejoined our congregation without missing a beat, and gathered family around us in celebrations of love and joyfulness made even sweeter by our absence.

In our church we have a somewhat liturgical response that begins with our minister saying "God is good" to which the congregation replies "All the time." The minister then replies "all the time" to which the congregations responds "God is good."

And so the litany continues... God is good.

Leaving Red Bird

It became just as obvious that time was approaching for us to leave Kentucky, as it had been obvious that we should go. Neither decision is easily explainable. I was recruited for a particular work and what we believed would take about three years to accomplish was finished in one. Although I was offered jobs in the region, we knew that our time in Kentucky was finished.
Knowing that the Clinic would be in good hands, that Red Bird was restructuring and rebounding, that Alan had completed many improvement projects on the campus, and that our home remained unsold in Indiana, made the decision to return to Indiana inevitable. Just as completely as our gaze had turned to the mountains and to a task there, our gaze turned toward “home” and a return to our Indiana family. We made many friends at Red Bird, we enjoyed the camaraderie and acceptance of many local people, we enjoyed meaningful work, we experienced life among a unique culture, we grew to love the magnificent mountains and the beautiful natural surroundings. We even grew accustomed to the isolation of the location, the heat of the airless hollers, and the idiosyncracies of mountain people and life in the Cumberland.
Going to Red Bird was a step of faith…and yet it hardly seemed so. We were compelled by a Spirit beyond our understanding, sustained by that Spirit, and returned home again with Spirit’s blessing.

Red Bird Realities

We lived and worked at Red Bird Mission during what must surely be the most difficult year of its existence. The American economic implosion of 2008-2009 had a devastating effect on donations to the Mission, as well as to the cost of providing services. The truth is that Red Bird had been operating in an inflated position for some time, overextending its ability to provide K-12 education in the same way and draining its reserves in an effort to do so. The Board made one wrenching decision after another: close the elementary school, close the entire school, cut back on staff and expenses to barebones levels. The organization teetered on bankruptcy and pressure on leadership was enormous.

To its credit Red Bird School was able to quickly reorganize, remaining a K-12 facility with some combined classes and reduced amenities (the closure of little-used dorms and reduction in bus routes, for example). Every budget was reevaluated and adjusted; cuts became painful but services remained stable. For my part, it was clear that healthcare services could not be sustained as provided and drastic measures were needed to keep the Clinic in the mountains. Upcoming federal regulations, our reliance on uncertain grants and donations, the difficulty of recruiting medical professionals to Red Bird, and our inability to remain independent given our lack of efficiency of scale meant that Red Bird would need to partner or be contracted to an able provider.

Red Bird Clinic provided me with a wonderful challenge: to provide current services as profitably and lovingly as possible and to find a solution to its long-term viability. After several studies, conversations with possible partners, and listening to local people, we were able to take a proposal to Red Bird’s board for divestiture of its Clinic operations to the Adventist Health System. Medical Director Sharon Fogleman was in full agreement and was happy to let me while away my days working on the details of the plan. In July of 2010 the Red Bird Mission/Clinic Board voted unanimously to give up control of the health ministry it had overseen for 88 years. It had not been easy, but it was so worth it…the Clinic remained in place at Red Bird and the people of the Red Bird Valley continue to receive care there.

I had worked myself right out of a job.

Samaritan's Purse

The beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina
Unloading medical supplies at Samaritan's Purse
Boxes waiting for shipment in time for Christmas
I’d been planning for weeks to do something about the pile of donations in the Clinic basement that we couldn’t use. Although we maintained an updated list of needs on our website, well-meaning folks still arrived at Red Bird with donations of medical supplies and equipment that we could not use. Much of the equipment was outdated, we had enough already (crutches), or patients could get a new one free of charge from Medicare (walkers, for example). There is a high cost to handling unneeded donations: the cost of storage, sorting, and disposal could be significant. For us, the solution meant volunteers made too many trips to a dumpster. The remaining supplies and equipment were verified as usable by Samaritan’s Purse, an international humanitarian organization with a medical supply arm headquartered in Boone, North Carolina (it’s director is Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham).
And so one weekend we loaded up a large van (and I mean loaded to the gills), and Alan and I set off for North Carolina to deliver the goods. The Blue Ridge Mountains were spectacular in their late spring greenery. And, yes, the humidity creates a bluish haze over the rolling hills. Samaritan’s Purse is tucked away in these ridges, a surprisingly large organization whose global reach touches children through its Operation Christmas Child, whose clean water and homebuilding services were working overtime after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, whose food was being shipped to hungry around the world, and whose healthcare supplies fill clinics and hospital worldwide. They welcomed our donations and gave us a personal tour of their operation. It was good to be able to share the overabundance that Red Bird Clinic had received, passing forward the gifts of others.


Berea was one of my favorite towns in Kentucky. Known for its liberal arts college, the town has been a hotbed of progressive attitudes and arts from its inception. Berea College has long been known for its work-study programs that allow Appalachian students to attend free of charge. It was the first de-segregated college in the South and has always championed diversity and racial reconciliation. Its efforts in peace-building, environmental responsibility, the arts, service to the marginalized, and high academic standards are widely known. Berea's long history with indigenous arts and crafts made it the natural location for the Kentucky Artisan Center. Boone Tavern is a popular hotel and restaurant (famous, too, for its corn-based Spoon Bread) and Warren May's famous dulcimer and handcrafted furniture shop is right around the corner. The town is alive with the arts, ranking in the top 25 U.S. arts destinations; music fills its town square weekly, community theater abounds, and a thriving community of artists make their homes there. Painted hands sprinkle the landscape (like the painted ponies of the desert southwest), welcoming visitors and symbolizing the 'work together' attitude of the community.

Red Bird Mission

This sign welcomes people to the Red Bird Mission campus.
Red Bird Mission fills a narrow hollow deep in the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau; it is surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest and follows the lines cut by the Red Bird River and Highway 66 in southeast Kentucky. The school is in the foreground with other Mission buildings around the corner and up the road.
Red Bird Mission
Although this blog has served me well in recording thoughts and experiences, it hasn’t yet shown readers the context of Red Bird Mission. Ok, so there’s been a picture of the Clinic and my office, of Alan working in a wood shop and with a team. Perhaps it sounded like we were single-handedly saving a community in Southeast Kentucky from poverty, disease and want. Nothing was further from the truth. We were, in fact, part of a community with a 90-year history of service in the Red Bird Valley.

Begun in 1921 with the arrival of two teachers and a preacher, Red Bird Mission was the answer to a prayer for a school for the children of mountain families too remote to benefit from county-seat schools. The geography in which these families lived was isolated and mountainous, the far-reaching back yards of three counties that came together near the tiny community of Beverly. A year later a nurse joined the group and soon a school, church, and hospital were thriving—today known as the Red Bird School, Red Bird Clinic, and Beverly United Methodist Church. With long ties to the United Methodist Church through its Evangelical United Brethern (EUB) roots (the EUB and Methodist Episcopal churches merged in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church), Red Bird Mission has been reliant on the goodwill of this denomination for all of its existence.
Today Red Bird Mission has expanded into five major components of service: education, health care, economic opportunity, community housing, and a broad range of services called community outreach. (Although Red Bird Clinic is its own legal entity, it shares the administrative services of the Mission and is governed by the same board of directors; here I include the Clinic when I speak of Red Bird Mission.) Although the Mission maintains historic ties with United Methodists and has many convoluted relationships with varied groups within the denomination, Red Bird Mission and Red Bird Clinic are governed solely by an independent board of directors organized under Kentucky law. The Beverly Church (mentioned above) and other United Methodist congregations in the region fall under a separate UM church structure called a Conference and are not governed by Red Bird Mission’s board. For all practical purposes, the churches and social service structures at Red Bird are completely separate, with Red Bird Mission and Red Bird Clinic governed by their board of directors and the churches falling under the United Methodist Red Bird Missionary Conference. With “Red Bird” in the names of all these entities and with their related histories, church ties, and geographical proximity (offices governing both sit side-by-side), it is very confusing for people from outside the area to recognize the distinctions.
The human side of the story is this: Red Bird Mission touches the lives of about 14,000 mountain people a year. The Mission has learned how to provide needed services in one of the most difficult environments and cultures in the United States today. Poverty and isolation still permeate mountain life; human need still outstrips the capacity of governments, industry, human services, and churches to provide. Red Bird Mission combines the best elements of all of these and somehow makes it work—not that the work is easy or complete—but it works.
The following pictures and text from the five ministry areas presents a most incomplete and unfinished story.
Dr. Lynn Fogleman works out a patient issue with business office manager, Winna Wagers.
It's never done till the paperwork's done!
Dr. Sharon Fogleman provided patient care for many.
Red Bird Clinic was a federally-designated Rural Health Center, providing a full range of primary care services on an outpatient basis. The Clinic included two board certified Family Practice physicians, a nurse practitioner or physician assistant, a lab/x-ray technician, two nurses, a nursing assistant, and office staff. Services also included a Public Health nurse and an independent on-site pharmacy.The Clinic saw about 500 patients each month on a budget of about $1.3 million, with patient revenues providing most of the operating budget. In addition, the Public Health nurse made over 600 home visits annually, as well as covered the needs of the school and some community health education.
Dr. Keiser and assistant, Ruth Ann, care for a patient.
Harry Brooks and students in the lab tech training program.
Dental Clinic
The Red Bird Dental Clinic sees about 150-200 patients a month. Serving an area of Appalachia with the national record for toothlessness meant that dental and dental hygiene needs were great. In 2008 a volunteer from Indiana (Harry Brooks) donated a modern dental appliance lab that provided low-cost dentures. In addition, he began training lab techs in the art in 2010. Without the services of a hygienist, dental hygiene students provided services annually under the direction of their instructors.
Meals on Wheels brought these women together.
The Christmas Room collects goods all year long.
Youth Summer Program--learning & fun on summr days.
Community Outreach
Community Outreach provides the most comprehensive range of human services, serving the elderly, women, children, the homeless, and community indigent. Its senior services include the DeWall Senior Center, Meals on Wheels and Home Care. Women and children benefit from MIHOW (Mothers & Infants Health Outreach Workers) and parenting classes, children attend its Early Childhood Development classes or spend summers in its Summer Youth program. Community Outreach also provides transitional housing & counseling for homeless families, transportation, low-income housing for disabled or senior residents, emergency food and clothing, adult education and GED preparation, a large Christmas program, and agriculture and gardening initiatives through Grow Appalachia.
On their day off dental hygiene volunteers worked on a campus building.
Lenny (NY) volunteers every year on community housing.
Community Housing
Community Housing provides a way for teams (and individuals) to work on housing repair projects for low-income residents in the Red Bird service area. Each year between 2,500 and 3,000 volunteers come to Red Bird for either the housing projects or to work on building maintenance around the campus. Staff oversee an extensive process of application and approval before projects are chosen, as well as management of the work and oversight of teams. Many youth teams come during the summer months, while spring and fall see adult groups generally.
Red Bird School provides K-12 education with extracurricular opportunities in music, sports, and foreign language. The school is known for its quality music program, which features choral and instrumental groups (a reflection of both a gifted instructor and a local culture of music).
At a craft fair in a Methodist church--this was only one of many tables of handmade crafts by Kentucky artisans (these from a Richmond potter). Baskets, rugs, weaving, cornhusk dolls, woodworking, jewelry, and dulcimers were also sold.
The Craft Store at Red Bird Mission featured many fine pieces of art.
The Community Store sorted, cleaned, and sold mountains of donations.
Economic Opportunities
This area of Red Bird Mission was its smallest and encompassed a Community Store (which sold donated clothing and some household goods, as well as provided basics for families whose homes burned), a Craft Store (which featured handmade crafts from Kentucky), and took craft shows to churches as a way of promoting Red Bird Mission and supporting artists from the region.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Front Porches

A front porch is a great invention. We had one, and I loved stepping out early in the morning for a cup of coffee and a chance to watch the sun play across the mountains, or in the evening to watch the shadows of an early dusk settle into the holler. Front porches became added rooms on some homes, complete with upholstered furniture, washing machines, junk storage, or clothes-drying lines. Porches always provided a good vantage point to watch people drive by or to escape the heat of an un-airconditioned kitchen or just a place to while away some time. They were best lined up with a row of mismatched chairs and rockers, friendly folks and kids and dogs in attendance, and a pitcher of iced tea at the ready.

Mountain Funerals

Family cemeteries are common in the mountains; this one was very near our home.
It was a bright January morning when we were taking some pictures around the Clinic for use in newsletters and promotional materials. I remember how our lab-tech, Pam, was laughing and we were all cutting up as cameras clicked. Laughing until the phone call came, anyway. Then Pam rushed off to the hospital where mining officials told her that her young husband, Travis, would be taken after being injured at a local coal mine. The air turned tense and prayerful. Unbelievably we learned a couple hours later that he was dead. Nobody had the heart to work, especially since so many clinic staff had close family members who worked in underground mines. And so my first experience with mountain funerals was with a young staff member, and it was grievous. My second experience came later with the death of another staff member’s brother. He too died too young and sadness gripped again.

Mountain funerals proved to be different from customs I had experienced before. One difference greets travelers immediately if they wander mountain roads: the small family cemeteries dotting many rocky slopes, or the obvious gravesites in yards or tucked up on mountain ridges behind homes. I wondered where an outsider might be buried when they died, especially if they didn’t own property or belong to an extended family with burial rights in their cemetery. I learned that mountain families will graciously extend an invitation for burial to people they esteem fitting for a family plot; otherwise the cemetery at the county seat will have to do...price tag and all. One of our staff nurse’s assured me that either Alan or I could be buried in her family’s cemetery when we died.

Funerals are huge community events in the mountains, bringing together families and friends in a way no other ritual can do. With tangled networks of extended families, a funeral becomes a big event. Women begin cooking almost immediately for the crowds that will gather and stay with the bereaved family, generally at their family church, for at least the days of the wake and funeral. Singing and preaching, grieving and visiting take place in the afternoon and long into the night before the day of a funeral. This wakefulness is appropriately called a “wake” and hearkens back to the time when most families kept watch over a body at home all night, sometimes including religious ceremonies to mark the time. In the mountains the wake generally takes place at church (although sometimes in a home), with mourners coming and going to pay their respects, view the corpse, and participate as long as they wish in the singing or preaching going on.

The funerals I attended were typical of mountain funerals, I was told, with their hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching and revival atmosphere. This seems to be a favorite time to preach ‘getting saved’ to the many non-churchgoers who attend. People seemed to expect the lengthy preaching, and the heightened emotions of grief added to the drama of revival. Such deep emotion coupled with the intensely personal nature of country hymns, and a funeral became a deep cauldron of raw grief. The one element missing, it seemed, was that almost no mention was made of the person lying dead in the room. I had the feeling that if the body had been absent, the meeting could have been held anyway…just called a tent-meeting or revival.

Mountain funerals were not gussied up affairs. They did not take place in a funeral home, but in the familiarity of a family church. The ones I attended had to no Power Point or video presentation of the person’s life. I did not see morticians dressed in suits hovering in the back, only mourners in the clean clothing of the everyday. I found it easy to strike up conversations with strangers in the church yard since funerals seemed to lessen people’s reserve. I remember the young man who talked on and on about the brotherhood of coal miners and how deeply any of their deaths affected him, and the young woman who insisted that she would never let her husband go down in the mine again.

As each body was taken to his burial I knew that his grave site would be well tended and that every summer family would gather there to remember. Cemetery reunions are a mainstay of mountain life, a tradition birthed in the days when circuit-riding preachers couldn’t get to the mountains until roads became passable in spring. His arrival meant funerals (or memorials) were celebrated en masse at that time and the family gatherings at cemeteries continue today, although they tend to be held throughout the summer months. Like the funerals preceding the burials, cemetery reunions have lots of preaching, visiting, and remembering. It’s just a mountain thing.

Not all are poor

Not everyone who lives in the mountains around Red Bird is poor. There are many very nice homes in the region, surprising first-time visitors by their unexpected appearance. Because county zoning and covenant restrictions are unknown in the hills (or not enforced), and because families build close together in hollers, it is quite common to find mobile and custom-built homes sitting side-by-side. One must remember that wages in the coal mines are good; combined with the wages of a teacher, nurse, or other professional spouse, and families own solid middle-class wealth. One local told me that it is common to see family wages approaching $100,000.

I got to know families that had spent their working years in other places but moved back to the mountains during retirement. Others worked for the state or federal government and were happy to commute from their mountain homes. Some families were able to enjoy higher standards of living by inheriting land or by renting property very cheaply from coal mine owners. I met several families who also owned cabins outside of the area, perhaps on a lake in the region or across the Tennessee line. With these generous wages, local families were able to enjoy a very good standard of living that included affordable housing, beautiful views, and recreation options enviable to others.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Goose Rock Elementary is where many of the children around Red Bird Mission attend (many also choose to attend Red Bird Mission School, which is funded by United Methodists around the U.S.). Goose Rock's fine facilities and many fine teachers make it an opportunity for good education.

One thing that surprised me during our year in Kentucky was the abundance of educational opportunities for youth from the mountains. The Washington pork machine under Hal Rogers (also commonly known as The King of Pork to the media) has funneled millions of dollars into the region, funding road construction, an airport, building schools, etc… One is simply struck by the newness and niceness of schools throughout the region. Drive across Appalachia—through southeast Kentucky and into Virginia, for example—and you can see the difference in schools and other infrastructure that show how southeast Kentucky has benefited greatly from the largesse of Washington.

Youth from the mountains have so much going for them educationally. They have beautiful buildings in which to learn. They have “Save the Children” in these buildings providing after-school tutoring free of charge. In at least our area, a local (coal-based) foundation pays for dental care & some healthcare needs, either visiting children at school or busing them to the doctor without charge. Preschools are commonly provided without charge; Red Bird’s was a quality program licensed by the state and directed by a professional. Every town of any size at all has a junior college, a technical school, or a satellite of one of the state’s universities—sometimes all of them. And just up Highway 75 sits Berea College, the best-endowed school of its size in the nation, providing a free education for regional youth. So many scholarships are available for Appalachian youth that the area attracts or retains some families cashing in on the opportunities.

And so I was puzzled to hear so much talk about lack of educational opportunities in the area. I heard the talk at Red Bird, where devotion to its school reaches zealot proportion. I heard the talk when I traveled out of the region to churches, where well-meaning congregants were anxious to do their part to help mountain children get an education. It seemed to me somewhat like begging in the Garden of Eden. Everything is in place for educational achievement and yet the rates of graduation and higher education remain abysmally low within mountain communities. This low achievement is not for lack of the amount of money and energy poured into education from the outside. (During my year at Red Bird the cost to run its school was about $1.8 million, almost all of which was donated monies.) I suspect, instead, that this is an inside issue and requires much more than money to solve. This one is about values and will. When enough people in the mountains decide that education is important, things will change. When the will that values education grows large enough, the children of these hollers will flourish.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Pigge-O-Stat

What to do with all the "old junk" taking up space around the Clinic? Donate it to the Kentucky State Historical Society to start its collection of historic medical supplies! Yes, that strange and scary looking stuff was interesting to curator Chris Goodlett and the Society Board. Red Bird Clinic was an early provider of healthcare in Southeast Kentucky, and its preservation of equipment and supplies provides the base of a growing collection. The Society carefully researched each piece and catalogued it appropriately. Above I stand with Chris and the old "Pigge-O-Stat" that had been haunting the hall closet for years. (A Pigge-O-Stat was a device to hold small children still for x-rays.)


Harry Brooks, long-time volunteer dental technician, donated a world-class lab & his time to provide dentures to many mountain residents.

During our year at Red Bird Mission 3,000 volunteers came to work on Community Housing projects. More came to help out with the school, community services, or in healthcare. Some long-term volunteers lived on the campus and volunteered full-time, generally helping in the school. Red Bird is a popular destination for church work teams, especially youth teams.

Tucked in the mountains, miles from the closest town, and with a tightly organized program, dorms and cabins, scheduled meals and activities, and a mid-week day off to explore the locale, it proved to be ideal for teams. Most came for a week, arriving Sunday evening in time for supper in the Cardinal House (its dining facility) and a program of introduction to the community and their work for the week. Team schedules included breakfast at 7 (some preceded by individual team devotions), work in community from 8 to 4 (most packed team lunches), supper at 5 (with showers pre- or post-), and ended with nightly programs in the Cardinal Houses auditorium. Thursday night programs were always a favorite, when teams participated in talent shows—a totally unpredictable evening of entertainment that always managed to please the crowd. Occasionally a local musician joined them for a touch of mountain music. Volunteers have saved a lot of homes in the mountains by providing the labor and materials for projects such as roofs, bathrooms (some a first), ramps, floors, walls, and more. The heat, humidity, and vegetation of the Daniel Boone National Forest took its toll on housing, especially if it was sub-standard to begin with.

Individual volunteers came for short and long terms (6 months or more makes one a long-termer). Several lived on campus and worked full time at the school; others came and went to work in varied services that Red Bird provides. Community Outreach was a popular workplace, especially for those who worked in its Christmas program, or in meal delivery or services for senior citizens. Occasionally medical volunteers came, including dental hygiene students or physicians with Kentucky licenses who could provide coverage for the on-site doctors. The Clinic was a popular place to do rural health rotations as medical students or those wanting to be Physician Assistants or nurses. I coordinated a number of programs with varied universities so that students could come get a taste of rural medicine on the edge.

One of the most amazing long-term volunteers was Harry Brooks, a retired dental technician specializing in making crowns, bridges, and dentures. Through his efforts--personal donations, soliciting donations of equipment, raising money--he built a world-class dental lab at the Red Bird Clinic. In addition to making the prosthetics needed, he also began a small training program to teach his craft to local students.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Chief Red Bird

A mythical red bird figures large in the creation legends of the Cherokee ancestors of the Cumberland Plateau. One finds the title Red Bird somewhat frequently in the area of southeast Kentucky where we lived for a year. The Red Bird River (small sized by most standards, but a river nontheless) flows northward to join many other creeks & rivulets feeding the Kentucky River. Its source in the mountains around us were countless springs & streams burbling up from the mountain rock, enlarged throughout the year by snow & rain. The region drained by this river became known as the Red Bird Valley, a beautiful area lying mostly north & south & covering the rural counties of Clay, Bell, and Leslie. Chief Red Bird was a Cherokee leader friendly to local white populations until he was murdered & his body thrown into the local river. I was never entirely comfortable with that bit of local history. It told me that under the beauty of these mountains laid the story of a betrayal, a murder, & the transformation of a river into a grave. Sometimes I remembered that as I listened to the sounds of the Red Bird River flowing behind our house.

Appalachian Summer I

Summer vegetables were always welcomed on our table.
The hydrangea bush I walked past on my way to work each day.

Yes, this is a county road & typical of the mountains.

The beautiful pine mountains of the Cumberland Plateau

One is left to wonder what will be around the next curve in the road.

Heavy. That’s the word I think of when I think Appalachian summer. Heavy as in the humidity of the air, the overhang of the forest canopy, the torrential downpours of rain, the low-hanging morning mist, the huge and daunting rocks of the mountains…even the heaviness of the fruits and vegetables bending stems and stalks of gardens in the hollers.

Since we lived in the depths of the Daniel Boone National Forest, summer brought on a verdant green canopy of foliage. Its depth obscured the mountain’s face and the homes hugging its edges. Allergy sufferers knew summer by the changing plant and tree leaves. Summer brought out the roto-tillers and garden seed. Many beautiful gardens filled hollers throughout the region, some immaculate and orderly; others a tangle of vegetable and weed stems. Preserving summer’s bounty was an art form for some, forgotten by others—thus instigating Red Bird’s efforts to reintroduce gardening skills to the region.

Summer humidity made us very thankful for air conditioning, and cranky when failed electricity or breakdowns made it go down. Heat came in relentless sweeps of 90-degree days that turned into 90 degree weeks, even months. Air temps often felt like 100+; everybody moved slowly and drank more; sweat poured and clothes stuck. We noticed something about living in a holler: the wind doesn’t blow there—it seems to skip above the ridges and misses the dips. We missed breezes. I often felt as if we were living in a terrarium.

Summer brought tourists to regions around the mountains, but not into the interior where we lived. Here children whiled away summer days playing in creeks, going to grandmas, and watching too much television or playing video games. The distance to parks, YMCAs, or organized activities meant a lot of idle time for youth. Red Bird did its part by providing a summer youth program and organized activities for young children through teens. Most families did not vacation, preferring to stay home during time off. Those who didn’t work to begin with, rarely left the mountains for lack of money or initiative. I found a love for travel very rare among mountain people.

Summer brought work teams en masse to Red Bird in order to participate in its Community Housing Improvement program. Beginning with trickles of teams in the spring and ending in trickles in the late fall, the housing program concentrates its projects on home repairs during the summer months. Work teams use school vacations to put youth energy to work on the many substandard homes in the Red Bird Valley. The forest with its vegetation and humidity, the mountains with their springs and dampness, take a toll on homes, especially on the trailer houses and substandard wood structures clinging to mountain edges. Many families are just now getting septic systems or adequate electricity; county safety and sanitation codes are not enforced in the region, making many homes dangerous and unsanitary for their occupants.

Summer brought community activities too, like cemetery reunions and bluegrass festivals. Cemetary services bring families together, and, yes, they are held at cemetaries. Women cook, men preach, children run around. Bluegrass festivals sometimes go on for days and feature many local groups, as well as national talent. The Osborn Brothers Bluegrass Festival is held each August in neighboring Hyden, featuring long days and nights of gospel, bluegrass, and country. I went to the festival and roasted in the summer sun, marveling at musicians performing energetically in long sleeves.

Yes, summer hangs heavy in the mountains. But even in the humid southern heat, flowers continue to bloom in succession even as hydrangea leaves wilt in daylight hours, water springs out of mountain rocks and the Kentucky River still flows toward the Ohio, the elk roam on mountain pastures, and people sit a spell on front porches. On lazy summer days, it’s good to find a shady spot, a fishing hole, a front porch…or an air-conditioned kitchen with iced tea flowing. Summer seemed to showcase the mountains in their richest and most verdant splendor, in massive coats of green leaves, grass and underbrush…a coat that soon enough would be shed for another season and only a promise of riches that would come again.

Appalachian Summer II

Berries & branches, wild flowers & the fragrance of summer Tobacco barn on the Hal Rogers Parkway

The verdant greenery of the Cumberland Pass

The Kentucky River flows slow & smooth

Beautiful hollers hide away around many a curve

Appalachian hollers are hot. Little wind and few breezes find their way down from the trees lining ridges above us. Storms seem to move over us, or move up the least resistant roadways and rivers. The air we breathe in the summer is sultry and cloying, sticking our clothing to us like slippery Velcro. Even the birds go back to sleep for the day, dogs loll about lazy in the shade, and the hydrangea leaves droop like a basset hound’s ears.

Summer is a time for gardens. Most everyone seems to have one somewhere in their holler--if not theirs, someone in their family has one. I have seen the most beautiful gardens of my life back in these hills. Pole beans climb many feet into the air, making me half believe the Jack & the Beanstalk story. Corn, potatoes, melons, peas, beans and more; they’re all there.

Summer is a time for enjoying the spectacular beauty of these mountains. Many enjoy riding four-wheelers and horses up and down narrow trails; four wheelers are also commonly used for transportation on the local roads. Children splash in creeks and rivers, or if they’re lucky they have an above-ground pool in their back yard. Some make a day of visiting one of several water parks in the region. Fishermen and water buffs enjoy the many lakes and rivers, some creating huge recreational places by damming up their waters. Southeast Kentucky is a place of dreams for the outdoor enthusiast.

Summer is a time of reunions, of sitting on the front porch and watching the world go by, of Vacation Bible School in local churches, baseball, and children home from school. One thing that summer does not seem to bring to mountain people is travel and vacation. Most seem content to stay at home, even when they have the means to travel. For the many unemployed in the area, it seems the times of year run together without much interruption of schedules. For those who work and take time off, most enjoy their time at home on the porch. I have found the rare person who thinks about faraway places, but for most it seems the best place of all is right at home in the mountains.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


There was never a more entertaining guest or table partner than Joan. Joan could hold an audience captive with her many stories about life in the mountains. Her voice was soft and the cadence of her voice slow. You had to listen well, but it was always so worth it.

Joan arrived many years before to work with children and in the homecare ministries of Red Bird Mission. One of her beloved patients was Tildy, a sturdy mountain woman married many years to Sy. When Tildy died, Sy turned his eye toward Joan and the two surprised everybody by marrying some while later. Joan was 50 and it was her first marriage. By the time we arrived at Red Bird, Sy had died and Joan was learning to live alone again, but missing dreadfully the love of her life.

Joan had travelled many of the back roads caring for patients. Her goodness was legend. She never feared bad roads or people. She knew how to protect herself, and you just knew that she knew. She stayed at home protecting her household when forest fires raged through her part of the mountains. She handled sick, drugged, and dependent folks with ease. I think she wasn’t afraid of anything or anybody. Snakes? A whack with a machete takes care of them. Problems unsolvable? Prayer takes care of them. Hungry? Her garden was prolific and her fried apples the best you’ve ever eaten.

When I came home to fresh vegetables on the porch, I never had to ask where they came from. It was always Joan. Although declining health has taken her out of the mountains, she remains for me a friend and icon of stalwart faith and strength. A real mountain woman.

Church Basement Lady

Fran Woodworth, Cook Extraordinaire

A popular book and entertainment program called “The Church Basement Ladies” profiles life in the kitchen of a Scandinavian Lutheran Church in Minnesota. But these ladies are everywhere and, if you attend church, you know some of them too. They can be the absolute heart of the church, bustling around between the stove and the refrigerator and serving up helpings of steaming love on special occasions. They are known for comfort food…literally. Their funeral dinners have comforted many families, as have hot tea and coffee on cold days before church. This is the group that turns out chicken and noodles by the gallon, invented Jello desserts, beats Keebler’s in the numbers of cookies baked, hosts luncheons by the legion, and ensures that no event goes unnoticed without refreshments.

There was never a truer member of this club than Fran Woodworth in Beverly, Kentucky. A retired pastor’s wife, she brought years of experience to the Beverly UMC kitchen. A woman who knew the taste and importance of good food for any occasion, Fran was one of the best cooks I’ve ever met. Fresh, real, homemade and lots of it…these were her mantra. No margarine. EVER. No generic mayonnaise. EVER. Only…well, only fresh, real, homemade, and lots of it. Thanks Fran for your generous use of culinary gifts; you are a true Church Basement Lady.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just Special

Tracy Nolan is just one of those special people you know for their intellligence and extraordinary compassion. As Director of Community Services, she oversaw a wide array of social services, wrote grants, shared vision, and always shared her enthusiasm for providing the best of care. Her passion and vision influenced our decision to move to the mountains.

The three of us worked closely together: Dr. Sharon Fogleman, center, (medical director) and Winna Wagers (business office manager). Both were very skilled at what they do; both worked hard, but laughed a lot too; both taught me a lot about the Clinic and about the unique community in which we lived; both made my job easy.

My Biggest Fan

When Taylor Collins, PhD, arrived at Red Bird to take over as Executive Director, he was very clear: he did not like what I was doing at the Clinic. He had no intention of ceding any space or service to anybody besides Red Bird staff. Health care, as part of Methodist mission in southeast Kentucky, had "been in these mountains" for almost 90 years; he had no intention of letting it go.

Taylor was a graduate of Red Bird School and part of a large local family down on Jack's Creek. He went on to receive multiple degrees and worked as teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools near and far. He moved home to The Valley from Texas, and took over Red Bird Mission as its first Director to have grown up in the community. His local roots made him a favorite of locals; he seemed rather suspicious of those of us who had come from the outside.

It took time, but he listened to my well-reasoned reasons for divesting healthcare. Document after document, study after study, projection after projection...and finally he listened. Taylor Collins went from being my biggest critic to "being my biggest fan" (his words). His support helped persuade a sceptical board of directors and meant that healthcare was secured in the Red Bird Valley for the future. On January 1, 2011 health services at Red Bird Mission were turned over to the Adventist Health System; the partnership provided jobs for almost all of the staff, provided monies for the Mission, and continued quality care in the region. I worked myself out of a job and quietly slipped back to our home in Indiana.

Benny and I

Benny Nolen, of Adventist Health Systems, and I worked many hours creating the opportunity for Red Bird Health Services to be contracted out to their Clay County hospital Manchester Memorial. We worked through personnel, facilities, profitability and other issues to create a proposal for Red Bird's leadership board. Benny took seriously the Adventist motto to "continue the healing ministry of Christ" by service to the people of the Red Bird Valley. It was a good match with United Methodist values and so we were successful in our efforts.

King Coal

The bumper sticker says it all: “Coal keeps the lights on.” And so it does. Coal keeps the lights on for millions of homes and businesses around America. What would utility companies do without the relatively cheap fuel that keeps their fires burning brightly? And what would these people of the Cumberland Plateau do without one sure way out of poverty? For all of its controversy, coal remains king in the mountains and will remain so for the unforeseeable future.

The present controversy around coal is the practice of mountaintop removal. Once blasted off and the coal scooped out, a mountaintop can never be replaced. And so many, some mountain folks included, protest this form of mining. It would be easy to jump on the anti-coal bandwagon, except that I know we have allowed many acres of farmland to be turned into shopping malls and housing, and the green earth of my Minnesota home to give way to a deep gash of red iron ore. Most seem to be content that companies “reclaim” the land (whatever that means), planting trees on what remains and making the best of earthly wounds.

We hope for a day when fossil fuels can be replaced by renewable sources of energy and made available at affordable costs. We also hope that in the meantime new industries and jobs can emerge in the beautiful mountains, jobs that will allow the mountains to remain intact and the people to find good work. For now, we say thank you to those who go into earth’s black belly to keep our lights on.