“…one of her favorites was ‘Oh, Wayfaring Stranger’ …she’d be crying, and singing, and talking about she couldn’t wait to get to heaven. I just thought, ‘don’t go tonight. I’m spending the night with you!”
Kateena Haynes, Executive Director, Harlan County Boys and Girls Club; Cumberland, Kentucky:
“Growing up in the mountains was a very comfortable experience, just because everyone knew each other. It really was like Mayberry, and you could rely on your neighbors and your friends, and whenever someone died, you took ‘em food. Everyone just looked out for each other, took care of each other, and you didn’t have to worry. I played out on the street until dark. I rode my bicycle for miles and miles, and my parents never worried that anything would happen to me. I knew I was taken care of.
My parents were quite a bit older than other parents of kids my age, and I think I was a happy, little accident. I have three older brothers, and no sisters. My oldest brother is sixteen years older than I am, and my youngest is nine years older, than I am. Dad was forty-one when he had me, and my Mom was thirty-six.
My Dad was a Sears repairman, and my Mom was a beautician. I remember one of my happiest memories was, I went to school, just about a couple of blocks away from our house, and it was Catholic School. I would come home for lunch, and I would see my Dad’s Sears repair truck out in front of the house. I would come in, and I’d have lunch with my Dad, and it was just me and my Mom and Dad. It seemed like we always had tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. After lunch, I’d go out and I’d play on his truck. Mom was a beautician, and she had her shop in the house and I would play in her shop. A lot of times, I’d get in trouble, (laughs) because of that. If she was out of her shop, I’d be in there talking to her customers, and acting like I was fixing their hair, and curling their hair, and messing with the chairs, and doing things that she wasn’t real happy with.
When I [finished] high school, I thought, ‘I’m going to get out of here, and I’m going to move to Knoxville or Lexington,’ and, ‘I don’t want to live here.’ I think the only reason I thought that was because I was told that. I don’t remember ever thinking for myself, ‘There is nothing to do here.’ But I just remember being told, ‘There is nothing to do here.’ And so, I had every intention I was going to leave, and I was going to go to college, and I was going to live in a larger city, because that was what I was supposed to do. And now that I’m back here, I think, you know, ‘Where, where did they come up with that at?’ You know, where, why is that the mindset?
I get really angry and aggravated when people say, ‘There’s nothing to do. There’s nothing for kids to do here.’ We have God’s playground here. There are mountains and streams, and hiking trails, and plenty of places to bike and explore. When I went away to college, and I was living in Central Kentucky, I can’t even explain the feeling that I had. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, was not from here. He was from Cave City, Kentucky, South Central Kentucky, and I remember thinking that I had to get home. I had to get home to the mountains, at least once a month, because there was this anxiety that built up in me because there were no mountains around. Without the mountains, I felt more vulnerable and alone, and it was just a really strange feeling. I would have to come home and just kind of get a mountain fix, and then I’d be okay for a while, and I could go back to my classes, and go on.
I went to college at Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky. (When she first sees mountains after being gone.) Relief. I’d feel relief. I know this sounds corny and cliché, but it was like a hug, there’s mountains all around, just comforting, and kind of cradling me.
I will tell you my favorite thing about Appalachia, and this is really kind of bizarre; funeral processions, when people will pull over. It’s a respect, and a community love that you just can’t find anywhere else. When someone dies in Harlan County or Eastern Kentucky, you don’t have to know that person, but if you’re driving down the road, and if there’s a funeral procession coming by, you pull off the road. You just pull off the road out of respect until the procession is over. When I’m somewhere else and there’s a funeral procession, and people are buzzing by, that’s so unnatural for me, just to not show that kind of respect to someone.
[Appalachian people] have characteristics and traits you won’t find anywhere else. It’s a love and a respect, and a sense of community, and a sense of family, that everyone here, even if you don’t know that person --- you’re still somehow connected to them. You have this magical connection to other people in Appalachia.
I am a hillbilly. I’m just a mountain person. I have mountain beliefs and values, and you know, it’s not to me the stereotypical toothless in a straw hat. It’s something to be proud of. I’m proud to be a hillbilly, and I’m proud that I have values and beliefs and a love of family, a love of God, and a love for each other. And that’s what it means to me to be a hillbilly.
I’ll tell you the first real experience I had when I left Harlan County, and I went to college. I had a government professor [and] the very first day of class, he started talking about Eastern Kentucky and Harlan County, and saying that it was the third world of the United States. He said there are tour buses that take people to Harlan County to look at the poverty. I don’t know if he had never had a student from Harlan County, or what. I was absolutely floored, and my little hand went straight up and I said, ‘Excuse me! I live in Harlan County, and I don’t recall ever seeing tour buses with people coming in to view the poverty.’ That was my first experience of how other people viewed us, and how heartbreaking, when you come from a family that you love, and a community that you love, to go somewhere else, and just know that people have this really terrible view of you. I have a Master’s Degree. My husband has a Master’s Degree. He’s a Librarian. You know, we’re educated. We have plumbing, and windows, and floors in our homes, and for people to generalize to an entire community, and discount them as a whole because they view them as uneducated and impoverished, is really disheartening.
In a lot of ways, we have a lot of advantages over people in bigger cities. I have so many friends who have moved off, and they live in a neighborhood and they don’t know their neighbors, and they have no friends. People retire and they move back here, just because they’ve missed that. We really have beauty here that is unmatched. You can go up on mountains in the fall, and see colors like you’ve never seen before, and it’s absolutely just remarkable, the beauty of our area.
What drives me crazy, is when the media comes in, and they don’t do an equal representation of what’s going on in Appalachia. A few years ago, Diane Sawyer came in and did this really dirty expose’ of Eastern Kentucky, and there was no positivity to it at all. The people that she interviewed, it was like she went out and looked for these people. I’m not saying that these folks don’t exist. There are toothless people in Appalachia, and there are toothless people everywhere, and you can find them if you look for them. But, we have neighborhoods with million dollar homes in them. We have a lot of wealth here, and we have a lot of intelligence here, and that is underrepresented in the media. If I had control of a major news network, I would go into the neighborhoods and show these homes, and interview the doctors, and the attorneys, and the professionals in Appalachia, and try to do an equal representation across the board.
One of the best memories, we lived right in town. I ironically lived in the same house that I live in now, the same house that I grew up in, and the same house that my father was literally born in. It’s been in our family, since 1921. It is very close to Main Street, and my Granny lived across the yard. I could go to her house, and I’d watch the parades, and we could hear when a parade was going through town. Cumberland used to be a real bustling town, and we had several parades a year. I remember looking out the window at my Granny’s house, and I called them the Dumadings [the marching bands]. I remember watching the Dumadings go down the road and I ran to the window, and I said, ‘I wish those damn Dumadings would shut up!’ My Grandmother took me in her bathroom, and stuck a bar of soap in my mouth.
When I was growing up, my Grandmother bought me chickens for Easter, and we had a little outbuilding [for] these chickens [because] we lived in town. We raised them in the outbuilding. I named them, and I went outside every day to feed them. Being a townie, I guess I never made the correlation of where my food came from. One day I went outside to feed my chickens, and they were gone. I looked in the window, and there’s my little, frail, tiny Grandma, holding onto a chicken, wringing its neck. We had chicken that night for supper. I went about six years, without eating chicken after that.
[Granny] was Old Regular Baptist, and if you’re not familiar with [it], it’s truly a huge part of Appalachia, and my growing up. They start services about 10:00 in the morning, and they go till about 2:00 in the evening, and they have seven or eight preachers, and they’re not boring. It’s hellfire and brimstone, and they’re full of energy, they have handkerchiefs just to wipe the sweat off. They have to tag team the preaching, it’s so intense. I’d go to church with her [grandmother], and they’d have foot washings, and everybody would just wash each other’s feet, and I think that’s really indicative of Appalachia, because that’s what you do for each other. You’re not afraid to get down, and help each other at whatever level. Then, there would be dinner on the ground. It was all these Appalachian cooks, [bringing] all these wonderful dishes, and we would eat, feast, and fellowship with each other. I remember being at my Granny’s, and she would sing these Old Regular Baptist songs, and one of her favorites was ‘Oh, Wayfaring Stranger.’ I remember being a little bit traumatized, because she’d be crying, and singing, and talking about she couldn’t wait to get to heaven. I just thought, ‘don’t go tonight. I’m spending the night with you. I don’t want you to go to heaven tonight!’ (Laughs)
[My parents] were artists, and they didn’t really start that until later in life. My Mom had a paint by number set, and she wanted to paint. She started doing that, and then she loved painting. She was probably fifty before she started painting, but she loved it so much. She would paint anything and everything that was a flat surface. She painted saw blades, pieces of cardboard, and pieces of coal, slate, and just anything that had a flat surface.
My Dad did folk art. He would make things out of gourds, and trees, and anything that he could find up in the mountains, and he would put it together, make these creatures out of it, and it was just really neat. They started an organization in Cumberland called the Poor Fork Arts and Crafts Guild in the early 80s. It was to help Appalachian people promote their art. As a Sears repairman, my Dad saw the art that Appalachian people had made. [When] he went into these homes, and he would see corn shuck dolls, and paintings, and all this really cool Appalachian art. He wanted to help give them a venue for their art. After he retired, he formed Poor Fork Arts and Crafts Guild, and still have a store in Cumberland where local artisans and craftsmen can sell their goods.
My parents were really promoted a love for each other. Dad, if he saw someone struggling, he would go to the store, and buy them a truckload of groceries, and give to them. We’d go camping, and our favorite campground was Elkmont, in the Smoky Mountains. We would go there at least once a year [to] camp. One of the main things my Dad taught me in life was, ‘You leave a place cleaner than you found it.’ My husband and I were actually talking about this. We went to the Smoky Mountains, and all these hikers have a slogan, ‘Leave no trace,’ but Mack Wilson’s slogan was even more than that, just leave it better than you found it. If there was trash there, even though you didn’t put it there, you pick it up, and you make it a beautiful place for the next person. He was really involved in cleanups in our area. I remember as a kid having to go with garbage bags and little trash picker-uppers and rubber gloves and pick up trash along the highway just because that’s what we did. We had pride in our community, and that was just the thing, that the Wilsons did. We took care of our community, and we took care of each other.
I’ve had a few [sad times like] losing my parents. As I said, they were older when they had me, and I grew up just knowing I wouldn’t have my parents around as long as other people had their parents. It was kind of morbid, but that was always in the back of my head. My Dad was diabetic, and my Mom had had breast cancer, so I was on a time clock with them. Losing them was hard. Also, my early twenties were really difficult because I had severe panic attacks and anxiety, and didn’t have a job for probably two or three years. I don’t have a lot of good memories about that time.
Probably [my happiest time was] having my kids, just being a mom. I always knew that I wanted to have a family. Just being a mom, and trying to get them raised, and whenever someone tells me, that they’ve helped another kid, that they’re a good person, that they’re helping someone else out, then that makes me feel really proud, and I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do what I was meant to do.
I have two daughters, two natural daughters, and one is fifteen, and one is thirteen, and then I have an adopted daughter, who is nineteen. They’re all great kids, but they’re all really different, and every day’s an adventure, just living with them, and following them in their activities.
I get a real bird’s eye view of the economy, being the Director of the Boys and Girls Club. In the past ten years, I’ve seen it spike up, and then go back down. We’re having a really difficult year this year. We lost a grant that we’ve had, and we’re losing coal severance funds just because the coal is not there. We have more boys and girls, than we’ve ever had, feeding about seventy kids a day. We have kids there, because they’re struggling at home, and they’re having a hard time. They need food, and they need homework help, [and we] to try to supply these services to kids.
I have been at the Boys and Girls Club for eleven years, and we serve the gamut. Our mission is to inspire, enable all young people, but especially those from disadvantaged circumstances to realize their full potential. There are a lot of social services in the community for disadvantaged folks, but there may be some stigma that goes along with that. We really try to counteract that, because we’re for all children. We believe that every single child has some kind of need, and whether they need a hot, evening meal or help with homework, or they need positive role models, or if they are interested in technology or computers, we try to individualize our services and help every single child in Harlan County by doing what we can do to serve them.
We serve about two thousand different kids each year, and every day during our after school program, we have about seventy kids, age six to nineteen. They come in and they receive a hot meal, and they get help with their homework, and we do fun stuff. We want them to feel like they belong to a community, and have friends, and people who care about them.
It’s a really difficult job at the Boys and Girls Club. You wind up loving so many kids, and wanting to help them, and it’s really hard when you’re trying to help kids, and then you send them home to these terrible situations, these terrible circumstances. And you’re wondering if what you’re trying to do, is making a difference. [Last winter], we had thirteen kids who lost a parent to a drug overdose. We were having about sixty-five, seventy kids a day, and so about twenty percent of the kids at our after school program lost a parent to a drug overdose.
I’ve always thought we have such a beautiful area, and if we could just show that to other people. [Maybe] there’s ways to increase our tourism and bring people in. We have one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and we have really smart folks. When smart, young people leave Appalachia, it’s disheartening because we have a lot of talent here. We’ve coined it, ‘The Brain Drain.’ I have three daughters, they’re all very bright, and I don’t want them to feel like they have to leave here to make a living. If we could just find some industry; we are isolated, we don’t have great roads, but now with technology there are industries available where you don’t have to have that. If you have some broad band internet [and] some intellect, you can do a lot with the resources you have.
I think I just want to pass on what my parents passed on to me. You take care of each other, and you take care of the earth that you’re on, and that’s the legacy that I want to leave, just the love, a love of art, and a love of nature, and a love for each other.”