“… all I want is for babies to be happy, and adults to be happy, for everyone to be present, and for our land to be cared for.”
Kimberly Shepherd, Welding Student; Loyall, Kentucky, Harlan County:
“I grew up in a holler called Catron’s Creek. We lived right by the creek [and] spent most of our time playing in that creek on giant rocks, running through the water. I didn’t realize, but my Mom told me later on that she followed us the whole way. I thought we were playing by ourselves! It was pretty magical, because we were able to be free. I have a younger sister, three years younger. We rode our bicycles [and] we had all kinds of yard sales on the side of the road. I can remember collecting rocks from the railroad and putting them on the table and selling them for money. I’m not sure if anybody ever bought one or not, but we kept trying to do it.
I went to Harlan Independent [School]. I graduated in 2002. I guess it’s not that long ago, but it feels like a hundred years ago. I feel like a different person. I did cheerleading [and] gymnastics.
I grew up with my Gramaw and my Grampaw and my Mom. My Papaw was a coal miner; he passed away about three years ago from respiratory distress…complications from black lung. He was a Vietnam veteran [and] he had a Purple Heart. My Gramaw used to let me get in her china cabinet and play with her dishes. To know her now, and how picky she is with her stuff, I can’t believe that. She must’ve really loved me if she let me get in her china cabinet. They’d sit on the front porch, of course in rocking chairs, while we ran around the yard. Sometimes, we would go out to eat on Sundays, and that was always really fun. I can remember going to Druther’s with my Papaw before it was Dairy Queen, and he would get coffee.
My Mom, a single mom, worked her whole life. She works at a pre-school, [and has had the] same job for twenty-five years. [She] gave us everything that we had, all on her own. I still to this day don’t understand how my Mom got by on so little money. I don’t ever remember wanting for anything ever, or even knowing that we didn’t have any money. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that we were poor, but it wasn’t anything to me. Seeing her get by on little money is really inspiring, because right now I work for minimum wage, and it’s really difficult. I can’t imagine what it was like for her making even less than that way back when, with two kids, not just one.
They [grandparents and mother] taught me that our family needs to stay close together, and that’s one reason I don’t ever want to leave here because all of my family is here and I don’t think that I should have to leave them to find a better job or find a way to sustain us. Make do. That’s what we do, that’s what Appalachian people do. We make do. We figure it out.
I like to cook. My daughter and I don’t eat animals, so I try to make Appalachian food vegan or vegetarian, which is an interesting path. It’s been so long that I’ve learned ways to navigate around it. This summer, we pretty much just ate food that grew out of the ground. You find interesting ways to do things, like we use sriracha on a lot of things because it livens it up. We eat a lot, a lot, of beans. Tofu sometimes, but I don’t really like it that much. It’s still processed.
I feel like the mountains are special, because we were allowed to be wild and free, and so we were able to just be kids. [It was] an unplugged childhood, and that’s what we’re trying to give our daughter because it’s a lot different when you grow up learning things outside, than from a computer or a TV.
What makes us [Appalachians] special is that we’re all connected in one way or another; we’re always willing to help each other out. We had some family pass away a couple of years ago and we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to pay for the funeral. Two days later, everybody in the community pulled together and completely paid for it, with money left over.
I left here [and] found out that being away from here wasn’t the answer. I went to Lexington and Louisville. I guess I was looking for happiness outwardly, and didn’t realize I needed to look inward, so I came back home. It was exciting at the time, because I thought I wanted something different. But looking back, I felt really lost because everything was so busy. Here, you’re able to be present, instead of worried about what’s going to happen next. I drive six miles round trip to work every day.
I just worked retail in Lexington, pretty much. I came home and I had a baby and after I had her, she was about three years old, I got divorced. After that is when I started getting involved in things in our community, because I realized that Brooklyn, my daughter, needed something to grow up in. I wanted to give her something, instead of just leave her something to repair. I didn’t come home to visit a lot when I was away, but when I saw the mountains it made me feel safe and comfortable and calm. Just made me feel really in tune.
Right now, we’re sitting at a table [at the It’s Good To Be Young In The Mountains conference (IG2BYITM)] trying to register anybody who wants to register to vote. Whitesburg [Kentucky] just passed a power plan, and we’re trying to work on something like that for Harlan County. I’m not really an expert, but from what I understand [there is] federal money that would go to abandoned mine sites to be reclaimed. For example, we could reclaim some of the land and maybe put a business on it; create some jobs, or a park or something like that. They [Whitesburg] stood in front of their City Council and had them approve a plan so that they can send it in to Washington to show that they’re in support. Basically, I think that they want to stop the people who are blocking money from coming into Eastern Kentucky and say we want to figure out something better, work together.
I took up welding last August. I have been working at a desk for a really long time, and it’s really boring, so I decided I wanted to try to work with my hands because I had never really done it before. I didn’t realize how much I really liked manual labor. I always tell everybody that welding is like meditation to me, because you have to be present when you’re doing it or your weld will look like [crap], pretty much. We want to open a shop, but mainly I want to have more kids and find a piece of land and let them run wild. I would like to maybe make furniture, do things on commission.
We like to go hiking. My daughter loves to do art. That’s all she does, all day long. Last night, she came to the punk show. She’s six and a half, and it was her first show and she thought it was the coolest thing ever. She told me she wanted to get a drum kit and start playing drums now.
I reckon I’m a hillbilly. I guess some people perceive it as a negative term. We live in the hills, and we’re proud of it, nothing wrong with it. Stereotyping is really silly and I think that it’s tired. I don’t think that it represents anything at all that I see every day. We’re just regular folks like everybody else, trying to keep our families happy and healthy and sustain them. I always say the same thing; all I want is for babies to be happy, and adults to be happy, for everyone to be present, and for our land to be cared for. They laugh at me because they say I want to live in a Utopia. But I really do! I think that can happen. We can build something beautiful, if we all work together.
I’m not an expert on the economy, but from what I see around me I can’t see it [coal] coming back and I think that talking about it... I don’t really want to say that it’s a waste of time, because we need to respect the past and what we have done, but we also need to look forward to the future because that’s what we’re leaving behind for our kids. I don’t really know what it says about us as a people if we don’t show that we want to make things better for what comes after us.
Things are getting better all the time [but] things are still the same in the ways that I want them to be. Like my daughter’s school, all the people that work there are people that worked there when I went there. I think the fact that there are events like this [IG2BYITM], where everybody’s gathering together and realizing that everybody feels the same way and they don’t have to chose a side, I think that’s what’s going to make real change come.
I won’t choose a side, it’s silly. Everybody wants to feel stability with their money, their job, [and] their family. Everybody wants to be healthy, I don’t think anybody wants to work a job that’s going to hurt their body eventually, or hurt the land that they have to live on. As far as the future, I think it’s really complicated because it’s going to take all kinds of things to make everybody happy because there are all kinds of different people here. The main thing we need to focus on is getting all those people in one place together.
[IG2BYITM] is a conference for young people to come and pretty much celebrate Appalachia and talk about reasons that they can stay here or how we can change it to make it easier for people to stay here. I was thinking about it the other day when I was driving down the road [and] it made me want to cry. When I was in high school, there was nothing like this. I didn’t know that you should be proud of something as much as I am now. It’s nice to me that I can bring my daughter to something like this. Last night she saw a girl in a punk band singing on a microphone and it shows her that girls can do anything. I didn’t see that, in that context, when I was little. It’s really cool that they have a place to come where they can feel empowered and their voice can feel empowered. That’s something that people need too, they need to feel like their voice matters.
I love living in the mountains. I think everybody should live here. [My daughter] Brooklyn is my legacy. I think she can change things. I’m working toward it, but I think she can do it.”