'A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains'
Diane Sawyer Reports on America's Children Living in Poverty in Appalachia
Feb. 10, 2009
In the hills of Central Appalachia, up winding, mountain roads, is a place where children and families face unthinkable conditions, living without what most Americans take for granted.
Isolated pockets in Central Appalachia have three times the national poverty rate, an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, the shortest life span in the nation, toothlessness, cancer and chronic depression.
It's been 41 years since Robert Kennedy called on the rest of America to reach out and help the people of Appalachia. These are the descendants of Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline and the families of legendary soldiers and pioneers who helped open up the treacherous mountain passes and create an American continent. They are fighters steeped in family, ferocity and faith.
For nearly two years, ABC News cameras followed four Appalachian children, each one facing unimaginable obstacles.
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.
There are also heroes in the hills -- teachers, social workers, doctors and dentists reaching out to a population isolated by the steep hills and lack of transportation.
Nicknamed the Mother Teresa of Mud Creek, Eula Hall, 81, has spent 36 years transporting the sick out of the hills and into her clinic. Working with her is Dr. Anant Chandel, born and raised in India.
"It's hard to believe but yes… people are poorer in this part of the country than where I was in India," he said.
Another hero of the mountains is Dr. Edwin Smith of Barbourville, Ky. He used $150,000 of his own money to convert a truck into a mobile dental office. Dentists say Central Appalachia is first in the country for toothlessness. One of out 10 residents is completely without teeth and children as young as 2 already have as many as 12 cavities.
"A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains" is a continuation of Diane Sawyer's reporting on America's forgotten children. Sawyer won an Emmy for outstanding feature story in a news magazine for "Waiting on the World to Change," a firsthand account of poverty among children in America, which aired in 2007. The yearlong reporting followed the lives of children in one of the poorest cities in America who struggle daily to succeed despite horrendous odds.
from the comments:
For many, many years I have worked hard to succeed professionally and personally--partly in response to and to counter the belief of many of my peers across this great nation that a "hillbilly" was somehow inferior to the rest of the world. With that said, I will admit that my first reaction to this television special was knee-jerk "horror" that just knew that my hometown and my "people" would be cast in that same stereotypical light that has pervaded the media since JFK and LBJ decided that we were the litmus test for poverty relief in America. While I believe that Diane Sawyer's first purpose was to highlight children who have been able to overcome their circumstances-and come on, none of you that have responded can deny that these kids do not live in dire straits----I think the end result will be a perpetuation of the belief that we (as hill people) are irresponsible, drug-addicted, backwards parents of the worse degree and that we need immediate rescue from OURSELVES not the entrenched poverty, corruption, and isolation that so many of our neighbors endure. If you are from Eastern Kentucky and/or still live there, don't sit around waiting for the media to air success stories about those of us who have gone on to amazing things and reach financial, educational, and societal success. Just keep working hard to provide your family with their needs and not to deny or be defensive about the fact that this poverty DOES exist and people do live hand-to-mouth up the holler right next to your driveway....don't lash out and ruin your own perception--just work hard and go after every opportunity that comes your way. I am angry, too, that folks in the Midwest or California will now put the faces from this show in their minds as representative of all of us...but it won't be the first or the last time it happens. You can only make sure that your mark left in Eastern Kentucky is a positive one!!
BelfryAlum88 9:48 AM
I was born and raised in Martin County. I consider myself a proud coal miner's daughter. There are a lot of good people there, but there are too many people who have never been away from Appalachia. They have no perspective. As you can read from the high school students' posts, they don't see anything wrong with how they grew up. I think that is part of the problem, they are fine with status quo. They haven't seen the possibilities and they are intimidated by other cities. They stay in their comfort zone of maybe Morehead State or Pikeville College. Both excellent schools, but inside their culture. I think everyone should have to live away from Appalachia, not only to appreciate the many good qualities, but also to recognize and not be so defensive of the bad. I made it a point to move away for a number of years, become a teacher, and then move back so that I could teach students from a young age that there is more out there and that they should explore. There isn't anything wrong with living here, but there is no shame in moving away for better opportunities. I think that a lot of times there is pressure for peole to stay close in Appalachia.Another aspect that makes Appalachia unique is their need to for appearances. They need to have Mustangs for their high school students parked in front of their trailors and $1,000 prom dresses on one income. Emphasis isn't put on saving for college or even getting a job. It's all about the appearance. Which is why I think they have such a hard time with someone putting the spotlight on the area. Deep down I think they realize it's not perfect, but they are not ready to let go of the way things have always been.
kygirl1973 9:44 AM
I was born in eastern Kentucky and I have lived here most of my life. Anyone who says poverty isn't as bad as television makes it out to be has had their eyes closed. They didn't make these things up. They're real. Those of us who have spent our lives trying to help people like this really resent those of you who want to tell the world that none of it is true. I can take you to 100 places -- 1,000 places -- that are this bad and worse. And if you want to know the truth, it all boils down to the coal industry.We've had one industry for a hundred years here. Coal has kept everything else out. Sometimes it has been intentional because executives didn't want anyone else to compete with them for workers. Sometimes it is the unintentional result of the state in which coal has left the environment. I grew up with so many kids whose parents told them they didn't need to go to school because they were only going to work in the coal mines. Coal mining has become so mechanized that it takes a tiny fraction of the people it once did to get the coal out. We need jobs here now, and we need hope. People here are fatalistic by nature. Most believe what will be will be and there's nothing they can do about it. We need to get people out of that attitude.Unfortunately, people here are too proud to admit these problems. On top of that, we have politicians who have made a cottage industry our of denying there are any problems, because if the problems exist it means they haven't done their jobs. All of you people who are criticizing this are enabling those politicians to continue screwing you and your neighbors.Lastly, what I hope is that people don't see this as a call for charity. People here by an large don't want charity -- they want a future. The best thing that could happen here is that we could clean up the environment, attract good teachers to our schools, build drug rehab cnters and create new, clean jobs to replace those that have been lost.
ekydem 9:13 AM
hello,, i would like to comment on things that were said about eastern kentucky, not everyone in ky is like what you just shown and some of us do have a colloge education, i mean dont get me wrong there is alot of people here that do need help but dont compare everyone in eastern kentucky to a toothless hillbilly's. Thank you
brittanyspence09 8:57 AM
I was raised in Harlan County, KY. My fondest memories are of the mountains that I call home. Mountain people are the strongest people I know. There's nothing that can compare to the breathtaking mountain scenery, the almost unpredictable weather, and the history and heart of the people. There are some people below poverty level, as with anywhere in the NATION, but by no means are the great people of eastern Kentucky so deep in need as they are being portrayed. If you want a story, try the history, beauty, and preservation of the mountains and the people that create that history and preserve it's beauty. But heck if you *have* to have a story on the worst things imaginable...try the political corruption everywhere and how things are run by who you know. haha There's your *tragic* story.
Harlan County Gal 2:37 AM
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America's dirty little secret is the pockets of grinding poverty that exist in both urban and rural settings. I remember being shocked when Mark Mathabane, author of Kaffir Boy, described some of the urban areas of our country as being like the South African ghettos he grew up in. We have homeless people in Alaska who live through winters, for goddess' sake! There is just no excuse for this kind of poverty in America.
With regard to urban poverty, when I see scenes of blighted urban landscapes with empty lots covered in debris, I can't imagine why we don't have community gardens. Why don't the home and garden stores, the city and county governments, corporate sponsors, and community leaders get together and come up with a way to pay the lot owners to allow for community gardens and help provide the tools needed? For that matter, why don't cities plant fruit trees throughout the city? Why don't we have projects where everyone helps paint the apartment and commercial buildings to improve the look and counteract the despair that goes with a blighted urban landscape? There is so much that could be done that isn't. It's maddening.