We Can’t Turn Our Backs

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

ABC’s 20/20 last night broadcast “Children of the Mountains,” one of the most heartbreaking programs I’ve ever seen.  It’s the result of nearly two years in which Diane Sawyer followed four children in the Appalachians in Central Kentucky.  I went into the watching ready to be ticked off at seeing rural mountain people stereotyped — with a chip on my shoulder, you could say.

That’s not what I saw. Here, from the 20/20 web site, are summaries of the stories of the four children.

Shawn Grim, 18, an Appalachian high school football superstar, sleeps in his truck to avoid the thievery, alcoholism and despair of his family’s life in the hollow in Flat Gap, Ky. During the course of Sawyer’s report, Grim moves eight times. He is determined to be the first one in his family to graduate from high school and go to college. Will he be able to achieve his dream of a different life?

Courtney, 12, is one of those children whose face reminds us of the famous portraits of the Appalachian past. Her clothes are stuffed in a suitcase under her bed in the small home she shares with 11 relatives in Inez, Ky. Her mother, Angel, struggles to stay off drugs and hopes to give her four daughters a better life by getting her GED and becoming a teacher. With no car and no public transportation, Angel walks 16 miles roundtrip, four hours total, to her GED class.

Erica, 11, hopes to save her mother’s life: “She’s almost 50 and… if I don’t get her out of this town soon, then she’ll probably die any day.” Erica and her mother, Mona, live in Cumberland, Ky., a once booming coal town. Mona battles addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol, her life ravaged by her struggles and despair. The region has a prescription drug abuse rate twice that of major cities like New York or Miami.

When his girlfriend becomes pregnant, Jeremy, 18, trades his dream of a life as an engineer in the military for a life underground in the coal mines. Sawyer travels down 3½ miles to the dangerous working face of the mine to meet Jeremy and the other men who work nine to 12 hours a day, six days a week, with little sunshine in their daily lives. But despite the safety concerns, it is the best paying job in the region.

You can see individual videos, parts of the whole show, by clicking here and choosing what attracts you.

Or you can watch the entire program here.

We can’t, as individuals, fix this.  But we neither can we turn our backs.  Here’s how we can help.

Kentucky’s Fifth Congressional District, where Sawyer did her interviews, is the most rural in America. Since 1980 it has been represented by Harold Rogers, a “conservative”* Republican who voted against Obama’s economic stimulus package on Friday, just hours before 20/20 aired. Twenty-eight percent of the people there live in poverty. The median income is $22,000.

This is happening in the richest and most powerful nation on earth.

* I put conservative in quotation marks because to me the word still means being careful with resources and needing to see a good reason to change, but not flat-out stingy and narrow-minded.

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