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Coming Home to Appalachia – What Will It Take?

PHOTO:  Appalachia's newest generation of college graduates hopes to get its message heard during the SOAR summit Dec. 9, which will focus on the future of eastern and southern Kentucky.
PHOTO: Appalachia's newest generation of college graduates hopes to get its message heard during the SOAR summit Dec. 9, which will focus on the future of eastern and southern Kentucky.
December 2, 2013

PIKEVILLE, Ky. - More than 1100 people have registered to attend a day-long conference next Monday about the future of eastern and southern Kentucky. SOAR - which stands for "Shaping Our Appalachian Region" - is a bipartisan effort to find ways to move the region forward.

According to Ethan Hamblin, a Berea College student from Perry County, it has to start with the people, invigorating their own morale.

"We have such a strong sense of place, and we have such a deep duty to our families and our communities here," he said. "We have to tap into that spirit that we have lost over the last few decades."

Hamblin said he will attend the conference, which includes "youth engagement" as one of its main topics. Governor Steve Beshear has said he wants everyone who cares about Appalachia to "commit time and energy to helping create strategies to revive" the region.

Nearly 6,000 coal industry jobs have been lost in the region in the last two years. Hamblin, who plans to return to Appalachia after he graduates from Berea next May, said the decline of the coal industry is a clarion call for diversification.

"We have been working within that binary, that binary system of you are either 'pro' or 'anti' coal. It is so silly that we are still having to have that conversation," he declared. "And, yes, this SOAR conference cannot, should not - and I am hoping will not - be that conversation again."

While access to health care is good in Appalachia, Hamblin said health and wellness must improve along with the region's quality of education.

Cecily Howell, a first-generation college student from Floyd County now doing graduate work at Morehead State, said knocking down barriers to communication is essential for progress to be made in Appalachia, especially when it comes to helping young people be successful.

"I came from an area where people weren't expecting anything out of their kids," Howell recalled. "So, they were like, 'Oh, you're probably going to work at McDonald's or in the mines,' or, 'We're just going to put you somewhere else where we don't have to deal with you.' It's a horrible way, a horrible mentality and attitude. "

Howell declared that she will live somewhere in Appalachia after college because, as she puts it, it's part of her "identity." She wants to help at-risk kids there.

The conference is December 9 at the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville.

SOAR registration is at kydlgweb.ky.gov.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY