Whitney Barger, Age 19, Student at Harlan County High School; Cumberland, Kentucky, Harlan County:
“I was in the situation of drugs [my parents when I was growing up]. I grew up where I was worried about stuff that kids shouldn’t worry about, like where my next meal was going to come from, and having a learning disability. I went and lived with my aunt [and] it didn’t change.
At the Boys and Girls Club [I met Kateena Haynes, Director of the Harlan County Boys & Girls Club]. It [the Club] changed my life. I could go there and not worry about what I had to worry about at home. They were all nice to me. I was 14 [when] I came to live with them [Kateena and Rich]. Rich and Kateena got temporary custody of me, and now they have me all the time.
I remember when my dad would come from Georgia. I remember him visiting. [I had a good relationship with him]. He passed away. They think it was a stroke or something, but they’re not really sure. It didn’t affect me much because I hardly saw him.
[Coming to live with Rich and Kateena,] I was like, ‘Whut?’ But I know it happened for a reason. I was afraid that I wouldn’t see the other people that I left. I didn’t think I was going to see them again. But I did, [and I still do] sometimes. A part of me wants to see them, but a part of me doesn’t. I think they’re a bad influence on me, so I just want to stay away from that.
[Now] I don’t worry about anything. [I] go to school, come home. [I do] First Priority Leadership, Junior Chef Competition, I ran cross-country and track, and… that’s it. First Priority Leadership is a place where we go to worship God in school. We go every morning.
I want to be a pastry chef. I grew up watching Food Network all the time and I really liked it. [When I was a kid,] I played outside, and watched TV, and was lazy sometimes.
I want to go to a cooking school. Get a job at a bakery, or a restaurant. I like [to make] fudge, cake, sweet potato, apple nachos. At the Swappin’ Meetin’ I won first place at a baking contest for a banana nut cake. It was awesome.
I like to cook, I used to run, I sing in the choir at my school, and I go to church. We [the choir] go to competitions at the end of the year and we do pretty good. We have concerts twice a year and we sing at events. I used to play the piano, but I quit. I didn’t like it. I think it [singing] is a stress reliever to me. Once I sing, I forget about everything else.
[On being stereotyped] We went to a choir state competition. They saw Harlan County and they listened for our dialect, and they said that they could hear it, but we didn’t. We were like, ‘You couldn’t hear it.’
I guess I’m a hillbilly. I’m proud of it, but everybody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re one of those people from Harlan County. You’re gonna be pregnant by the time you’re 20. You’re gonna drop out of school.’
We’re just like y’all. We do the stuff you do.
I think that there’s something besides coal here, we’ve just got to find it. [10-20 years from now,] it depends on if the generations now stay or leave. This place has potential. If you stay, open businesses, it’ll be like it used to be.
I don’t think there are opportunities here for me, but I’ll always come back and visit. I think it’s unique because everywhere else, they don’t have mountains. I think the mountains protect us. [The people] they’re all really nice. They’re unique in their own way, and they’re each different.
[I have chances now I didn’t have before.] Going to college, doing stuff that I wouldn’t have got to do, like play sports and go places for opportunities.
I’m really tough. Anything that comes my way, I think I can get through it.”