Last week we returned from a three day trip to the tiny town of McRoberts, Kentucky, located in what is commonly referred to as Appalachia. McRoberts has a population of about 800 people, drastically reduced from the thousands who once populated this former coal mining community which thrived until the 1950’s when coal production started to diminish.
McRoberts is rural America. "Downtown" has no traffic lights, only a handful of functioning storefronts, no banks, no movie theater, a small general store. Unemployment figures in the town are above the national average and the average per capita income stands at about $23,500, well below the state average of about $40,000. More than 55% of the population has less than a high school education and many families have little or no means of transportation.
As we traveled to McRoberts it was obvious that many factors helped to explain the region’s unique problems. Driving west from Charlestown, West Virginia you get the sense that you are entering a physically beautiful region but most definitely one that is extraordinarily remote. It was as if we were driving into a cocoon with mountains towering over us on both sides. Town after small town came into view but concentrated commerce was almost non-existent. Sporadically, fast food restaurants and a Wal-Mart or K-Mart were the main attractions. With little difficulty one could see the effects of mountaintop removal mining and when we spoke with residents there was much more that we learned about the devastating impact of coal mining in southeast Kentucky.
The purpose of our trip was to visit McRoberts Elementary School and deliver a 53′ trailer of new merchandise; all donated by our friend Ranya Kelly and her Redistribution Center in Denver. McRoberts Elementary School is led by Ms. Kristie Collett and almost every child in the school comes from a lower socio-economic background. Ms Collett and her staff have worked hard, with sparse resources to produce a school that is both warm and welcoming. It is obvious that she and her staff care about the students (a few more than 70 now enrolled) as well as the building itself. Despite the age of the school, its leaking roof and very well-used furniture, the halls are welcoming, filled with bright colors and positive messages directed to the students.
Over the course of the two days it took to unload this huge trailer, sort the thousands of items it held, and then distribute them to the school families and elders in the community it quickly became apparent that there was something unique and positive about this little town. Despite its many problems and serious lack of resources, McRoberts’ residents have developed a true sense of community. Members of the Community Center, who joined in as volunteers, proudly shared the successes they had achieved in finding grant money to build a community center, a playground, a new walking track and so much more. There was a spirit here that perhaps is common in very small towns…we don’t know? Whatever its origins, we were so happy to offer what we could and look forward to the many other ways we will assist the school and the town as they struggle to provide for the community.
Shortly after we returned home, we received the following email from Ms. Collett.
First of all, thank you so much for blessing our small community. I have had such positive feedback form the event. Everyone really appreciated the items and was amazed at the quality of such items…
We are already thinking about a return to McRoberts. What can we do next?