When I was a first-grader in Westville, I felt sorry for one classmate. He had holes in his shoes, his clothes were wrinkled and his hair was matted.
He’d sometimes wear pajama tops to school. His hands were so dirty that they appeared to be covered in bark. Our teacher refused to touch the “milk money” that he brought in his petrified bandana.
That was more than 50 years ago, but those memories came storming back recently when I went on a week-long church mission trip to the isolated mountains of far-eastern Kentucky.
Church groups often fly to Haiti, Central America, Africa and U.S. disaster sites to help out. They build houses, vaccinate children and do home repairs, all in an effort to obey the Good Book and “love one another.”
You can find poor people anywhere, but Appalachia is different. The two counties where we worked are among the poorest in the entire United States. Everybody we met, it seemed, lived mainly on Social Security, disability checks and food stamps. They turned to the local mission center for help with clothing, furniture and home repairs. Our work projects were organized through the center.
Part of our group traveled to the Keeton place, near Martha, Ky. The twisting road took you way, way back into the mountains. Finally, you got to a gravel driveway that snaked up a steep hill to two dilapidated houses and a banged up house trailer.
Eight Keetons, spanning four generations, live there. They hadn’t had running water for 10 years.
“I tell everybody, ‘If I had runnin’ water, I’d think I died and went to heaven,’” said Mollie. She lives in the trailer with her husband, Donnie; her daughter, Robin; and Robin’s baby, Noah. Noah weighed 2 pounds, 12 ounces at birth; at 3 months, he weighs 7 pounds.
The Keetons have a well, but it stopped working. They collect rainwater in barrels to flush toilets and clean. They drive to town to fill jugs and a tank with drinking water.
Their trailer, surrounded by weeds, junk and dogs, was a wreck. They heat it with a kerosene heater, but it must be freezing in winter. The thin walls have little insulation. There’s no foundation, either. One living room window had leaked for years; everything below it had rotted away. Although we were supposed to replace only the window, we ended up also replacing the window frame, studs, part of the floor and some drywall.
Volunteers worked and worked to pull the old pump and pipe from the well, install a new pump and replace all the wiring … but all for naught. Unbeknownst to everyone, the well had collapsed far below the surface. When that became clear, one volunteer wept.
President Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in 1964. Trillions of dollars later, the Keetons are still collecting rain water and hoping that someone can fix their well. It would be like dying and going to heaven.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.