I took a road trip to end 2014. I drove to Charlotte to cover my Louisville Cardinals at the Belk Bowl for KentuckySports.com. On New Year’s Eve, I ventured to Washington, DC to celebrate the 30th birthday of my beautiful cousin, LaShonda, then embarked on a nine hour drive back to the ‘Ville. I needed some quiet time with myself and the Lord to reflect on life — my successes, my shortcomings — and determine what’s next. In the midst of all this thinking, I got lost in the scenery of Appalachia. It took me back to two distinct moments in my life.
When I was 16, my mother and I travelled to Honduras with her church for a mission trip. She wanted me to see that although my life had been rough growing up, it could have been worse. The poverty I was exposed to completely changed my perspective. I saw people living without electricity as I often did as a child, but they were missing windows, doors and any type of security features that could protect their belongings. I remember a child around 12 years old who showed up to the medical clinic with an infant, stating that their parents had gone out to find food weeks ago and never returned. I remember a man who walked over 10 miles to the makeshift medical clinic with pieces of tires roped to his feet because he did not have shoes. When we arrived home after our 10-day mission, I flipped the light switch in the front hallway and immediately burst into tears.
Looking into the mountains on my road trip reminded me of being a nursing student at Berea College when I discovered that there were people living in very similar conditions in my own backyard. I had known that poverty existed in Kentucky, and I had lived it in Louisville’s West End, but I had no idea that there was poverty in Kentucky like the poverty I witnessed in Honduras. It shook my worldview, and I immediately felt that our mission trips had been so misplaced.
I took a community health and nursing course that landed me in a holler in Jackson County, trying to teach elementary school students about healthy eating and the importance of consistent exercise. What I learned, both at the school and shadowing a home health nurse, was that anything I had to say was a moot point because of the conditions in which many of the people lived.
I vividly remember my first day with the home health nurse. We pulled up to the home of one of our patients; it did not appear inhabitable. The door opened to reveal one open room with an adjacent kitchen and bathroom. Five people lived there. There was barely enough room for us to walk from the doorway to the couch where our patient sat. She was a middle-aged woman, with uncontrolled diabetes, facing a leg amputation. There was no place to set the nurse’s bag, so I held it the whole visit, standing aghast in the middle of the room. The wallpaper was tattered and pealing from the walls. The windows were boarded for safety, preventing the flow of fresh air into the home and there was a single candle flickering in the middle of the room because there was no electricity. The nurse attempted educating our patient on the importance of healthy eating; her response was simple, yet heartbreaking: “I’m sorry but I have no money for food or medications. I eat what we find or are given.”
The Appalachian poor are often overlooked … not because we don’t care, but because they are essentially invisible to us urban folks. The reality is, there are 37 counties in Kentucky designated by the Appalachian Regional Commission as economically distressed. Of the ten poorest counties in the United States, five are in Kentucky (Owsley, Wolfe, McCreary, Jackson, and Clay counties). In Owsley county, over 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. These statistics do not present the complete picture by any means, but they etch enough of a picture to suggest that we could and should redirect our mission trips to the counties in our own backyard.
I truly believe that there is nothing wrong with wanting to lend a hand in other parts of the world; being a global citizen is very important to me. However, it is more important to me to effect positive change in my own community. I suggest that we should redirect the mission of our missions to the mountainous areas of our Commonwealth. I encourage more #HomelandMissions