“I truly do believe that people don’t really understand what it’s like to be here, and how hard it is to be in it.”
Devyn Creech, AmeriCorps Worker; Middlesboro, Kentucky;
“I was born in Whitesburg, Kentucky. I grew up in Cumberland, but also in Partridge, which is right across the Letcher County border. It was a lot of fun [growing up in the mountains]. My Mom lived in Partridge, my Dad lived in Cumberland. My Mom, her parents, her two brothers, her sister, one of her brothers’ wives, and their little girl all lived together on Collier’s Creek in Letcher County.
We had a big, huge yard. We had this big hill behind our house. We would ride bikes, scooters, boxes, whatever down this hill. We would play in the mud, run around barefoot, the typical things. My favorite memory from living there is when, in the wintertime, we had that big yard that’d get covered in snow and my Uncle Arf would actually tie a sled to the back of his four-wheeler and take us all around the yard. It was really, really fun, for the most part.
And then, you’d go to Cumberland, and it’s kind of a different world, too, because you’ve got parks nearby. You could have all the neighborhood kids and go play at the parks. I’d say it was a pretty good childhood.
My parents, in my memory, I never remember them being married. They were 18 when I was born, and they were married for a little while, maybe a couple months, but it didn’t last long.
I went to the new high school, Harlan County High School. I’m a Black Bear. For me, it was kind of hard, I guess. Being a teenager’s hard. Being a teenager in the mountains is hard (laughs). I mostly did theater the entire time I was in high school. If I could skip a class to go to the theater, I would. I did everything I could: I made costumes, I wrote scripts, I directed, and stage managed, and helped build props. It was just an escape for me. All four years of high school were pretty much in the theater.
I always felt like my potential had a cap. Like, no matter how hard I tried, or how much good I did, I couldn’t succeed here. My mom, especially, always told me that success is leaving and finding a job somewhere else. It’s almost like working at a fast food restaurant in Lexington is better than working at a fast food restaurant in Harlan. I always felt growing up really conflicted, and angry, and confused, because this was my home and this was where I wanted to be.
I didn’t quite know it was where I wanted to be yet because I’d always been told I shouldn’t want it. So, growing up I always said, ‘I’m going to go away to college.’ And I went away to college. And I came back. That’s what made me realize all of the things I just said. That I had been told my entire life that this wasn’t the place to be.
I went to MSU, Morehead State University. I majored in theater. I got a full-ride theater scholarship there, all four years paid for. And I left. That’s just three hours away, it’s still in Kentucky, but nothing seemed right. I got real, real sad, and I failed out. I came back home. I feel like the stars kind of aligned to make that happen. I’m much happier here.
I directed the most recent edition [of] Higher Ground Five: Find a Way. I co-directed the big production with my friend Austin Rutherford. Higher Ground started in 2005. It was a group of people who said, ‘How do we talk about the prescription drug abuse problem here?’ I was not involved then. Virtually 200 community members provided oral histories for us to transcribe into a script. And then, 80 community members actually acted in the first production. Since then, we’ve had five productions, and each one has been used to tackle different sensitive issues within the community.
The most recent one, we address the grief over loss of coal jobs, a just economic transition. We talked about the education system and acceptance of homosexuality in the community. We’ve talked a lot about family units, kids pawned off onto grandparents, families destroyed by drugs. I think everybody we’ve had has had something to do with drug abuse. I think it’s making a difference because I see the reputation we’ve built up with the community. The community trusts us enough to let us talk about these things. These things like loss of coal jobs, which is very, very sensitive for people around here to talk about. They let us get up on stage and sing and dance about it. So, in my mind, the fact that these people are even letting Higher Ground exist is success in itself.
Robert Gipe [Higher Ground creator] is one of my best friends and my mentor. He is one of the strangest people I’ve ever met and probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He has a heart for this place like not many people do. More so than him being worried about his own credit, or what he’s going to do, he’s worried about providing for us, for the younger generation. That’s why I got to direct, because he said, ‘This isn’t ours, in the future, it’s theirs.’
I honestly look up to Robert, I adore him. I don’t really know many people that don’t like him. Robert and I work in close quarters. My office, which is just a table, is right outside of his office. You go into his office and it’s all of these random pieces of art and flyers and pieces of paper, the plastic off of water bottles, all this stuff. He’s always walking around with his nose in a notebook and drawing with his head down the entire time.
I don’t know if any of you have ever seen Higher Ground; he has done some pretty funny roles in that. He’s the only man in his 50s that I have seen jump in the way that I’ve seen him jump and run. He’s just a really nice guy that lives on Ivy Hill with his old yellow dog. He just published a book called ‘Trampoline’, which, for someone coming out of Harlan County, it’s literally just living literature of what it’s like to grow up here. I think that everyone should read Trampoline whether they’re from here or not. Robert’s [originally] from Kingsport [Tennessee].
[What makes Appalachia special?] My go-to answer is always the people. It’s one of the only places I feel like you can just drive down the road and get waved at by people you don’t even know. If there’s some kind of tragedy, you can guarantee that somebody’s going to be at your door with some kind of food, like, ‘I made this for you because I know that you’re going through a hard time and, you know, we have to stick together.’
I feel like there’s a type of community here that a lot of people anywhere in the world don’t have. There’s a lot of Appalachian pride and stubbornness, but for the most part, my entire life, I’ve just seen all of the people from here stick together and stay together. It’s like a big, giant family unit. I felt like the whole community’s raised me, not just my family.
I truly do believe that people don’t really understand what it’s like to be here, and how hard it is to be in it. Everywhere I go, people mostly make fun of my accent. They immediately think that I’m not an intelligent person because of the way I talk. Aside from that: the typical inbreeders, that they make mention of. ‘You marry and love your cousins.’ Barefoot and pregnant’s one that I’ve heard a lot: ‘All the young girls over there are barefoot and pregnant.’ And, ‘We can’t help ourselves,’ that’s what people think. Even though I feel like we are the most self-sufficient people in this country right now.
We are some of the most self-sufficient people in the world. And some of the most interesting. More than anything, we need camaraderie, not people telling us how to fix our problems or what to do, but people who are willing to support this place, especially people from this place. If most of those people from those [media] networks could sit down and talk to a lot of the people from here, instead of going and trying to find all the worst things they possibly can, they would learn that it’s really, really a beautiful place for so many different reasons.
I think [the future of Appalachia, economically] is a whole lot of stuff. I think that it’s the arts and I think that it’s ecotourism. I think that we’ve already got a pretty booming medical field. For the most part though, from my experience, it’s going to be along the arts line and ecotourism. There’s a lot of grassroots organizing here and small town entrepreneurship that I see. All of these little segments are going to fit together into a bigger picture.
[To fix the drug problem] I know for me growing up, it was always just, ‘Don’t do drugs. Drugs are bad and they’ll kill you.’ But nobody ever really taught me about them. Nobody ever said, ‘This is what this does, this is what that does.’ It was always, ‘This’ll rot your teeth out, make you go crazy. You’ll probably kill yourself.’ It’s so accessible here!
I could just go to my doctor right now and say, ‘I’m having a little anxiety,’ and he’d put me on a nerve pill immediately, probably. There’s so many people who treat nerve medication and pain medication as a permanent fix. When in terms of nerve medication, that stuff’s meant to be a band-aid to help you get better, not for you to use forever.
There are so many people broke down and so many people that have mental illness that they [the medical profession] don’t know what else to do. How do you help entire communities beside medicate ‘em? Part of it is expectation for people. That’s what’s expected from around here. It’s very normalized around here. I’ve had family members who if I’d been like, ‘Oh I’m sick,’ they’ll be like, ‘Here, have a Xanax. Here have this, here have that.’ It’s normalized to the point where family units treat it like it’s Benadryl.
It’s really sad. I also feel the hopelessness around here – drugs are a quick way to make you feel good. People think that’s the way to go. Whenever you’re sittin’ at home and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, my electricity’s gonna get cut off,’ or ‘I can’t feed my kids,’ or ‘I can’t do this,’ and you’re lost in this helplessness, you lean on whatever you can. They become vices. People just pop it like it’s Tic Tacs.
I’m a hillbilly. To me, it means that I can figure things out on my own if I need to. I’m not scared of hard work. I’m not scared to cook and clean and fix things and try my hardest.
My mom moved to Bell County whenever I was very young, and my dad stayed in Harlan County. I lived in Bell County for a long time until I was 14. There was always some kind of weird emptiness there. My mom got married and moved to Lexington. I didn’t want to go to Lexington. I said, ‘Well, I want to go to Harlan. I want to go live with dad.’
It turned into a two-year long court battle when I was 14 years old. I was old enough to understand everything that was happening. I was old enough to understand that I was hurting my mom. A series of events had definitely made me want to be with my father, who’s one of my best friends. Mom just kept appealing and appealing and appealing and we had to go back again and again and again. To see what that did to her and to my family, it was really hard.
My dad, Richie Creech, is the best dad in the world, first of all. Whenever I was little, he worked in factories and stuff. After a while he went to barber school. He was a barber in Cumberland. It was him and Odell. He was a barber for years and years and years, like 10 years. He’s a youth minister at Lewis Creek Pentecostal Church in Letcher County and he gives everything to those kids.
He buys them clothes, he buys them presents, he throws them parties, he feeds them. He is definitely like a parent to them. While I was in high school, he went back to college because he didn’t get to go when I was born, he was so young. He went back to college to be a psychologist. Now, he works with kids, 5-10 year-olds. I think that he’s a good man because he’s dedicated his entire life to helping other people, especially the ones that can’t help it, like kids who don’t have control over their situations, who don’t have control over their lives. He is just a big, huge heart walking around.
I’ll tell you about the worst camping trip we’ve ever been on. I think this was whenever I was kind of coming into being a teenager, and your Dad is weirded out, like, ‘My little girl wears bras. She’s becoming a woman.’ So he kind of forced the camping trip. He was like, ‘We’re going on a camping trip.’ I just wanted to play video games and talk on Facebook all day. But we went on this trip. I had to have been 12, 13.
The first night there, the air mattress totally collapsed and we were just sleeping on rocks on the ground. The next morning, all of our breakfast blew off the grill onto the ground. He was like, ‘Okay, okay, we’re just gonna go fishing.’ He had all kinds of bait in one of those bait traps you hook to your side that you carry with you. We were going wade fishing.
Well, somewhere between walking down the river and getting to where we wanted to actually fish, all the bait swam out. So we didn’t have any bait. And then, I can’t remember who fell down first, but dad fell down and hurt his shins pretty hard. And then I fell in a hole between a bunch of rocks. Dad thought I broke my leg, but I just busted my knee up and my foot up. He had to limp down the road to get the car to find a way to come and get me from the riverbank.
It also rained the entire time (laughs). It was just really bad. But I was glad I have that experience with him. I like to have that memory now. I don’t know if I’ve ever been camping since.
(Happiest time) Last fall was pretty good. I’ve lived on my own since I was 18, pretty much right out of high school. I had gone off to school and come back, and I just felt like a failure in a lot of ways. So last fall is right around the time that I first moved back to Bell County. For the first time, I was working with Higher Ground. I felt very fulfilled there because I felt like, for the first time, that I was doing theater with a purpose. And that purpose was to help the place that I loved the most.
That had been most of my problem with MSU, is that it was Shakespeare and all these plays that were cool, but that 100 people had done before and that didn’t fix anything inside of me. I just felt really empty. So I had been working with Higher Ground and that had come out of nowhere. And it was a paying job, in the place that I loved the most, where you can’t hardly find a job, let alone a fulfilling job, as an artist.
I also got a dog last fall, that is my best friend, named Harley. It was a lot of really good things happening for me. For the first time in my life, I was like, ‘I don’t really need a boyfriend, I don’t really need anyone. I’ve got myself, and my dog, and Higher Ground, and I’m happy. I’ve got a place to live and I have food.’
I got a position with an organization called AmeriCorps, who stations workers in low-income communities to help with community projects. I’ll be working under Robert Gipe again. I’ve signed on for a year, and at the end of this year they’ll give me $5,000 to go to my college. I go for training later in the month. I’m also going back to school this fall. I hope that goes well.
I don’t feel right if I’m not here. I’ve been to northern parts of the country, and where it’s all flat. My family’s from Maryland, so I’ve been there. I feel kind of like a prey animal unless I’m in this little bowl. So I feel like I will spend the rest of my life here. I definitely don’t have any whims at all, to leave now.
[The mountains provide] Comfort. Comfort, foremost. I wish I could explain it. Everywhere I’ve went my whole life (and my Mom’s taken me out of the country) – nowhere ever really felt right except for here. I don’t know if that’s just growing up, and it’s like a big hug, all the time, or what. I’ve heard it [the mountains] described that [a big hug] by a couple people. My Papaw used to say that. It’s the strangest, calmest kind of excitement. It’s not the kind where you jump up and down; it’s like a sigh of relief, to just drive into it and think, ‘Okay, this is home. This is where I’m supposed to be.’
[My grandparents have passed on a legacy to me of] A giving nature. Kindness. All of my grandparents are the kind of people that will give you the shirt off their back. Money matters nothing, and that’s something that has been really useful to me in my adult life, especially when things are so hard around here, because you don’t always have money to do fun stuff. If you don’t have money, it’s okay, because you can still have fun. I like to be at home, honestly. I have four cats and two dogs. I hang out with them a lot. I play a lot of video games. I read, I write a little. Any kind of art. I’m not a very well rounded artist yet, but I’m trying to get there. [I do a] lot of introverted stuff.
[I want my legacy to be] Happiness. I want my kids to be happy. I want them to be content here.”