When you first arrive at Big Creek People in Action (BCPIA), Marsha greets you with a hug as if you have known her your whole life. It is her way of reminding us that we are all connected, and while you are with Marsha, she is sharing her own connectedness to the place she grew up and is a part of her. McDowell County is where the Pocahantas coal fields are. It is a place that has suffered great exploitation from outsiders – first, the coal industry and robber barons, and in the 1990’s, the banking institutions. Largely what has been left after outsiders took what they could are poor people, many who cannot leave, shattered dreams, oxycontin addiction (“soul-killing”, as Marsha calls it) and other environmental and social challenges. But there is also love, compassion, and connectedness to the place while also being aware that it is disconnected from much of the country it has fueled. As Marsha’s colleague Kem Short says, “America no longer believes they have poor. They don’t want to admit we are here. It’s like we are an embarrassment.”
Marsha did not always live in McDowell County. She left to get married when she was 17, but it was a bad marriage, and she never felt at home in the new surroundings. So she returned to McDowell a single mother with 2 children, including a now-adult son with severe autism who needs a lot of support services in a county with few available. These days she runs BCPIA, a community-based organization that provides a range of supports for the dwindling and poor people in this Appalachian county. Services include after-school programs, community education and social events, and home renovations and repairs. Housed in the old middle school in Caretta, groups come from around the country to help with the latter part of these services, and we leave with a greater connection not just with Marsha, but with ourselves and an appreciation of our own surroundings and responsibilities to each other.
In an interview, Marsha explained her connectedness to McDowell like this: “These roots hold these trees in these mountains. Somehow these roots get embedded in our souls and we’re very connected, very connected to these mountains. And it doesn’t if they never come back…this will always be home and they will always have roots in them.”
Where are your own roots deeply grounded, and how do these roots help you weather challenges while stay true to your convictions?