Josh Stillman is spending his summer with the Appalachia Service Project. He files this report from Whitesville, West Virginia.
It’s Saturday morning and week one is over. There is now an eerie stillness in the empty halls. Silence in the wake of a week of incessant commotion pervades the center like mist after a downpour. I was expecting to feel relieved once the volunteers cleared out and we again had the center to ourselves. Instead, I already miss them. To temper this unanticipated loneliness, I’ll reflect a bit on Whitesville, the town quickly becoming our second home.
A quick Wikipedia search provides the basic framework of the place: population (approximately 520), median household income ($19,250), portion living below the poverty line (30%).
The real Whitesville is much, much more than a collection of statistics. The main drag, for lack of a better word, is about three blocks lined with quaint shops and homes that could function as cardboard cutouts in any 1950s western. The two stoplights, in fact, appear to be of that same era and dangle limply over the small intersections, more ornament than necessity. Whole families perch on front porches, stolidly observing passersby. However, it is easy to forget that the stunning mountain landscape and homely antiquity mask a great deal of poverty and hardship. More than half of the streetside shops are closed and in disrepair, and these families perch on their porches not to relish their small-town life, but due to widespread unemployment. Like many others in Appalachia, those not working in coal mines are not working at all. They support themselves and their kin (a term generally confined to O. Henry stories but used liberally in these parts) on meager disability or Social Security checks. Life, as it were, is not easy.
They face need in a way that I may never know. Every expense is felt in a real way. Items that I would consider basic household staples are often luxuries here. One woman proudly exhibited her newly furnished kitchen to us, and explained that the stove, refrigerator and microwave were the products of months of working two and three jobs. Another asked me a few days ago, “Don’t you love going to the bathroom to wash your hands?” I agreed, and she brought me into her small bathroom to show me her sink, a lovely white fixture topped with an oval mirror. “Can’t use it,” she said, visibly defeated. “Plumbing don’t work.”
At times we really do experience what might be called culture shock. Whitesville is a long way from the suburbs, a long way from Duke University. But in spite of it all, in this little town that time forgot long ago, I have never felt more appreciated. The staff can drive down main street and be greeted with waves and smiles by all who see us; families set aside entire mornings to prepare for the volunteers feasts of barbecue, slaw, pasta salad, breaded fruit pudding; one local church, on their own initiative, treated all of us to a hot dog roast and worship service. It seems that the whole population has embraced us as kin. Sometimes we even receive the true family treatment: the same woman so troubled by her bathroom sink, after hearing about an insect I was too afraid of to touch, looked me dead in the eye, smiled, and called me a chicken.
Though Whitesville has been all but forgotten by so many, its memory will endure in us. We could never forget a family like this.