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Revisiting Colt And Crystal’s Struggle To Stay: Struggles Lead to Strength in Appalachia

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Roxy Todd/ WVPB
Colt Brogan and his co-worker Crystal Snyder.

Communities throughout Appalachia struggle with shrinking populations. As a region, Appalachia is losing people in the prime working years (ages 25 to 64) even as the rest of the country is seeing growth in that demographic, according to a 2018 report from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The latest census figures indicate West Virginia alone lost approximately 10,000 people in the last year and has lost nearly 65,000 people in the last seven.

Each year, thousands of Appalachians move away from their hometowns to find opportunities elsewhere. Local leaders often talk about a “brain drain” — referring to young people who get their college degrees and move out of the region to a city with more job opportunities.

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In 2016, our Inside Appalachia team began documenting the lives of six Appalachians who were trying to decide if they could find a stable job and keep their roots in Appalachia, or if they’d have to leave home for opportunities elsewhere. This series won first place for “Best Series” from the Public Media Journalists Association (formerly known as the Public Radio News Directors, Inc.).

Two of the people we followed in this series are Colt Brogan and Crystal Snyder. Both grew up in West Virginia, and they were passionate about finding a way to stay in Appalachia. Both spent two-and-a-half years in a job-training program with the nonprofit Coalfield Development Corp.

“I mean, every part of me feels born and raised here and feels a part of this land,” Colt said. “Just like anywhere else in America right now, it’s gonna take the people inside of it to make it stronger.”

 

From 2016-2018, Colt and Crystal were part of an apprenticeship program that teaches skills like carpentry, solar panel installation, and farming. Trainees also attend community college classes and earn their associate’s degree. Coalfield Development paid their tuition, but if they didn’t keep their grades up, they could be fired. The program is funded in part by federal money to help coal-producing states transition away from coal.

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Roxy Todd
Colt Brogan

Colt and Crystal signed up for Coalfield’s farming program, called Refresh Appalachia, and they became friends.

“I’m proud to be in the field of agriculture, I’m proud to be on this journey. I don’t know where it’s going but it’s going somewhere good,” Crystal said.

They bonded over their similar backgrounds — both have struggled with multi-generational poverty and substance abuse in their families. But they also shared a sense of determination to succeed, and to overcome the obstacles of their past.

Four years after we began following their story, neither Crystal nor Colt currently live in West Virginia. Colt and Adrianna moved to Ohio. He works in the auto industry. He says it’s good money, but he misses his family, and he and his mom still haven’t reconciled. He and Adrianna are hoping to get married next June.

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Roxy Todd/ WVPB
Crystal planting squash at a farm in Milton, W.Va.

Crystal meanwhile, moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where she’s pursuing a career as a water operator.

Both say they made the decisions to leave West Virginia, and leave farming, so they could find more financial stability. Both of them still hold a dream to return to West Virginia, and both still have a dream to own their own farms.

Even though they didn’t end up pursuing jobs in agriculture, they say their experience in Refresh Appalachia gave them a sense of what is possible.

Music in today’s show was provided by Marisa Anderson. Roxy Todd is our producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Ibby Caputo edited the stories in this episode. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped us produce this episode.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org. Or address your letter to Inside Appalachia at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, 600 Capitol Street, Charleston, West Virginia 25301.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Caitlin Tan is working as Inside Appalachia’s folklife reporter, as part of a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies grant. The goal of her reporting is to help engage a new generation in Appalachian folklife and culture.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.