In the “Club House” where are staying there is a clipping of a newspaper article from a 2003 edition of the Boston Globe entitle “Losing Hope in Appalachia”. The article was part of a series that the Globe produced on preventable deaths throughout the world. Evidently, the series had previously focused on health issues in the third world, so the fact that a part of the United States was featured in the series was probably surprising to the readers. Interestingly, the article did not focus exclusively on the health concerns caused by the residual effects of the coal industry. Instead, the focus was on how the health of the region had declined along with the region’s economy. In a sense, the loss of hope of a better future may contribute to the region’s health problems.
After my first day in West Virginia, I can understand why the people of the region have little hope. The towns we drove through featured many archetypical American main streets, but with seventy-five percent of the stores boarded up. Walking back from our house project, we met the oldest current resident of the town who related how the town had changed. He criticized the coal companies not for health problems, but for bringing in outsiders to work in the mines. Health is a concern, but job opportunities are paramount. In spite of the region’s difficulties, the man to whom we talked was the epitome of warmth that is emblematic of the Appalachian people. I realized that as welcoming as this disposition is, it could actually be a disadvantage in Appalachia’s current state. As communities shrink, the relationships upon which individuals depend disappear, possibly creating a permanent state of loneliness. Perhaps the Appalachian people are so open to visitors because the visitors temporarily eliminate the loneliness.
Wanting to be with people is the greatest difference I have seen so far between the urban and rural poor. The homeless in the city rarely have time to themselves and most crave privacy. The openness of the Appalachian people is a big adjustment from the inward focus of the urban poor. Obviously, these generalizations do not apply to everyone, as I have yet to meet the family on whose house I worked today.