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.