Megan Epperson, AmeriCorps Vista Program Employee, Pine Mountain Settlement School; Big Laurel, Kentucky:
“I live over in Big Laurel, which is on the north side of Pine Mountain in Harlan County. I have [lived there] twenty-seven years. It’s very rural; there’s no restaurants, there’s a post office and a convenience store and then, homes.
For groceries and stuff like that, you have to travel thirty minutes to either go to Harlan or Cumberland, or forty-five minutes to Whitesburg. Pretty much anything that you need you have to drive to, but I love it. I chose to remain there instead of moving to Harlan or something like that. I love the quiet; I love the closeness of our community, everyone knows everybody, everyone supports everybody. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place to live.
[As kids] we spent a lot of time in the mountains, my sister and I did. We hiked, we just explored our area, we spent a lot of time at Pine Mountain Settlement School, which is just about five miles from where we live. We’d go to day camp there and go hiking and learn about naturalist qualities.
Staying close to home, we didn’t really travel. Of course, we do vacations and stuff like that, [but] really we just kept ourselves occupied being out in the forest, and taking advantage of where we lived.
My father worked on a strip job, he drove a loader, and then my mom owns a convenience store and she ran that for many years while also doing retraining for coal miners. Now, she’s a nurse and now my dad is retired.
High school was fun; growing up across Pine Mountain, we had a grade school over there, Green Hills Elementary. I went to school with pretty much the same group of kids from kindergarten to eighth grade. So, going to high school over here in Harlan, because there was no high school over there, we had to come over here to James A. Caywood High School, which is actually no longer a high school. We kind of went all together. We were a Green Hills Elementary group.
When we came over, it was a long bus ride. Any sort of inclement weather could be a little stressful ‘cause we cross Pine Mountain. If anyone’s experienced any mountain top living, you know that it can be raining and sunny down in the valley, but up on the mountain, it can be a whole other story. All my friends from Harlan would message me or call me and say, ‘Is it snowin’ over there? Do you think we’re going to have school? Is it snowin’ on Pine Mountain?’
The bus ride took almost an hour, just depending on how many stops. I was definitely very happy when my sister got her driver's license so I could ride with her to school and then when I got my driver’s license. That was a long ride to get know and talk to people that I’d really grown up with, so it really wasn’t that bad.
It was a big chunk of your day, I mean we had to wake up so much earlier than everybody else who might have had about a fifteen or twenty minute commute. Then, of course, we got home a lot later than everybody else, so by the time you got home you were exhausted from the ride over. Then, of course, you had to do your chores at home and your homework and all of that stuff. It definitely was exhausting.
My sister and I always tried talking my mom into getting a dishwasher, but she said she had two perfectly good dishwashers right there. Keeping the house clean and picking up yard work, we’ve always raised a garden my whole life so we’d help with that. And I didn’t get paid for chores. I hear about kids these days who get paid for chores, but that was your cost of living there in my house. Just helping out our parents the best way we can. They worked hard to keep us fed and clothed and a good life, so that was our repay to them.
Ever since I was small, I remember going in the garden and picking beans, picking corn, canning tomatoes, just everything. Still to this day, my family raises a garden. My sister and I raise a garden together. My grandma, who is eighty-one, raises a full garden. We have all the good things you could want; beans and tomatoes and corn and squash and cabbage and lettuce. It becomes a family affair, we all help each other can and pick. We just do it all together. I love it.
[Appalachian food] Lord, I could go on about that for forever. My mom likes to tell about when my sister first started school. She came home [from school] and she’d always be super hungry, as soon as she got home she’d want something to eat. As the weeks progressed, she come home and she’d just be really upset.
Finally, my mom was like, ‘What’s wrong Sara?’ [Sara] said, ‘They’re feeding us fake food!’ It was because we had always been raised on garden food, we didn’t eat out of cans. My mom didn’t buy can corn or canned beans or carrots. It was all stuff from our garden, and then we preserved it. So she referred to [the school food] as fake food.
I feel sorry for people who have never ate things that are fresh. They really have no idea the real taste of things. It tastes so much better when you’ve grown it yourself and put your hard work and sweat into it.
I fortunately come from a long line of wonderful country cooks. We can really put down a supper, like I mean we’re talking chicken and dumplins’ and shuck beans and cream corn and cornbread. We can really put down food.
My friends, when we would spend the night with each other, they could not wait to come to my house because at my house we had full meals. Steak, green beans, corn, cornbread. Full meals everyday. We didn't have heat up hot pockets or pizzas or anything like that. I had never ate anything microwavable until I was in high school. So, they loved coming to my house ‘cause my momma would feed them good.
When we woke up in the morning, we’d have biscuits and gravy and sausage and everything. When I would go to their house, we were having canned ravioli and stuff like that, so they loved coming to my house ‘cause they really got to eat good.
I’ve worked for the United States Postal Service for eight years and I’m about to be employed at Pine Mountain Settlement School. I’m going to be employed under the AmeriCorps Vista Program, and I’m so excited about that. I’ll be helping with the community, and helping an organization in a place that I have loved and grown up my whole life.
[Pine Mountain Settlement School] is really a hidden gem. There’s so much history there; it started as a boarding school in 1913. It was a dream of a local man named William Creech, who wanted children of the community and of the area to have just as much opportunity and education and academia as elsewhere in the state.
He donated land, and enlisted a woman named Ethel deLong [Zande] and Katherine Pettit and they came down and kind of ran the show. There was Mary Rockwell Hook, she came and designed all the buildings [and] all the stone. The timber all came from Pine Mountain. There’s so much history there and we still full-fledgedly run education, except we focus on environmental education. We offer programs for children, and we offer plenty of programs for adults, as well.
If you [don’t] have time for programs or anything, just come and look at all of the historical buildings that are over one hundred years old. The architecture is beautiful; it’s definitely something to come check out and look at. The chapel, first and foremost, is all in hand cut stone and, what’s really amazing to me, is the entire chapel and every stone that is in the building was all taken from one large boulder that was found on Pine Mountain. It’s built in the shape of a cross, and it features an organ there that was carried over Pine Mountain when it was still just a dirt trail; piece by piece on horseback.
It’s a pipe organ and it creates wonderful sound. You can hear it played if you come to the Nativity Play in December, which is a play [about] the Nativity [and] the birth of Christ.
We have the library that’s still fully stocked with amazing, old wonderful historical books about the area. We have the Draper Building, where we have a lot of our classes. It houses a lot of looms and, of course, our animal rooms. There’s really so much stuff to look at. In the library upstairs, we have a lot of Indian artifacts; arrowheads, spearheads and a lot of history on the Native Americans that dwelled in that area in the past.
As a Vista employee, we’re going to be focusing on doing community outreach; keeping that relationship with the community strong. Seeing what Pine Mountain can do to help others. Also, we’re going to be working on just getting the word out there about the Settlement School, because there’s so many people that I know that are just from Harlan that have never been there before. It’s just because they don’t know things they can do there or they don’t know if they can just drive over and visit.
[Appalachian culture] There’s no doubt about it, it is special and it is different. My family and I like to travel a lot. My sister, mom and I love to go on road trips together. We stick to places like the South, because there’s no place like Appalachia.
You have this mentality and this common courtesy; you have manners and you have respect and not to mention Appalachian people are so resilient. They come from a long line of people who have worked hard for anything and everything that they have. A lot of them can be set in their ways, and that can be a good thing and that can be a bad thing.
Really, there’s just this sense of community. Take this conference here today (It’s Good To Be Young In The Mountains). We have people from seven, eight, maybe more states, but we’ve all come together for one common good. That’s the wonderful thing about Appalachia is there’s undying support in any endeavor.
There’s no other culture I could imagine that I would want to be a part of more. [I expect to live here the rest of my life] I’ve never been the type that’s, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here’. I like visiting cities, and I like visiting different places, but I want so much for this area and how can I really support that if I don’t live here?
My family went on a vacation to the beach in July; we went to Topsail Island, North Carolina. It’s beautiful, and we stayed seven days and when we hit middle North Carolina and we first seen those sights and mountains, literally you get a relief, weight is lifted off.
I remember making a status on Facebook, ‘I see mountains’. It’s so comforting. You know, a lot of people feel like mountains that surround you is a trap, but to me it’s like a protective net. It’s comfort. I have comfort seeing the hills surrounding me. I don’t feel like it's a cage, I feel the opposite, I feel comfort in that. There’s no better feeling than seeing those mountains after you’ve been gone from them for a while.
[Outsiders] It’s very frustrating to read articles from maybe, New York Times or see things on TV and shows that or movies that are representing people from this area. It’s frustrating ‘cause mainly it’s inaccurate. To me, it’s almost like they don’t know any better; it’s ignorance.
They’re just going with the stereotype that has been perceived for hundreds of years, and they themselves have not put in the effort of going and finding things out for themselves. Or if they have made a trip into Appalachia, it seems like they always tend to go to places that might not be favorable because, yes, just like here in Appalachia, or just even in a large city, there’s places in large cities the sides of town you don’t go to.
Every place has areas that are unfavorable, unpleasant, have history that you might want to sweep under the rug. For some reason it just seems like that is the things that are focused on in terms of people from this area, or places of this area. It’s very frustrating when you know that is completely inaccurate and you just have to be kind of smart with how you handle it.
You want to represent our area in the best way possible, so you need to react to it in the best way even though it’s easy to get angry and upset. All I can say is before you speak out about this area, or if you have questions about this area, just come and visit for yourself. I promise you’ll leave here and you’ll have a completely different opinion if you’ve started with a negative one.
It seems like we have always been the accepted butt of all jokes. It’s so frustrating because we have so many wonderful qualities; we have so much to be prideful about, and be thankful for. Look at where we are at right now. There’s so much to be proud of. It’s still okay to laugh about us, or poke fun about us and to be mean and negative about us; we’re the accepted joke I guess you could say. It’s not fair, and I feel like now is the time to change that and it doesn't mean that we need to find someone new to pick on or to kick on or anything like that. You should just have support and acceptance of everybody. There’s positive and negative everywhere, why does it have to be us?
[Economy] It’s been very disheartening to see loved ones, friends and things, suffer with maybe not being able to make their next car payment or maybe not able to take their kids on vacation because they don’t have the money. It’s very unfortunate, but I do think that there are solutions.
I feel like coal has been our staple and has been our reliance and it was fine while it lasted because you use what you have, you use what resources you have. But now, since that’s not ideal and that’s not logical, it’s on to the next thing.
We are a resilient person [and] our ancestors made do with what they had and succeeded in the best way possible. Why can’t we take that mentality and bring jobs in? Why do we need to leave this area and go to a city in order to get a networking or a computer job? Why can’t we have that here? We can!
If we want to stay here, it’s our responsibility to go out seek those opportunities. If the jobs and opportunities are here, people will stay here, but if they don’t have nothing to go to, they’re not going to stay here. We have to go out and get it ourselves, because we can’t rely on anyone else to do it for us; and why should we when we are just as capable of doing it ourselves?
Go out, get opportunities and bring them to us. I feel like we have full potential of doing that. Of course, technology is more insane than ever. There are so many that things you can do, everything is being computerized and technical. Anything having to do with technology and computers in this area would be a huge benefit. I can name a lot of friends who have degrees in electronics and technology, but they had to go out of state or out of region to get education in that. Maybe if we offered some more of those classes at our community college, or if we brought in some sort of networking place. If we could think of what we need we could bring it in here.
[Difficult times] I’ve actually been very fortunate in having a very good life. I have the most amazing family that I could ever ask for, incredible support system. I guess the thing that has been a little painful on the heart is just seeing friends and family members who have given up on this place. Have to leave here and missing out on this area and losing friendships and losing relationships based on them leaving this area. That’s been difficult.
[Triumphs] I’m twenty-seven years old and I was late in going to college; I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I graduated in May with an Associates Degree. I finally found a career that I enjoy, which is working at the Settlement School, and now I’m part of the Vista Program and that’s going to help me go back to college and get my Bachelor’s Degree.
My life is finally going toward where it’s supposed to be. I worked multiple jobs for many years just because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I just kept myself busy and just paid bills, but I felt like I was treading water and not really moving toward anything. Now I feel like I finally have my destination in sight and I’m moving toward it. I’m very relieved to feel like I’m finally getting toward where I’m supposed to be and going toward an opportunity that I know I can make a difference. I’m going to get [my degree] in environmental education, because that’s what I interned at the Settlement School for three semesters teaching environmental education to inner city kids that came to the Settlement School.
I want to be known as someone who was supportive and enthusiastic in everything that I did, and was willing to help and assist in making a difference in this region, in my community and made a positive influence on people that I was around.”