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One Year Of COVID In Appalachia: Fathers Talk Bonding With Babies, Teenagers Share How The Pandemic Has Upended Their Lives, And More

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Courtesy Mackenzie Kessler
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Mackenzie Kessler, a high school student from Fayette County, W.Va, has been exchanging audio messages with teenagers in Wales.

The pandemic has reshaped our world in many ways. Can you remember what life was like before you wore a mask to the grocery store? This has been a historic year for so many people, and we wanted to mark the moment. Let’s be clear, the pandemic isn’t over yet. People are still getting sick, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, 70 percent of the U.S. population has received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; only 16.4 percent are fully vaccinated. And frankly, we still face months and years of recovery. But it’s good to think back on how far we’ve come. In this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia, we check back in with some of the people we've had on our show over the past year, and hear how they're doing now.

Foster Care in a Pandemic World

The pandemic has reshaped so much of our lives, and that was true for families fostering and adopting children, too. In Eastern Kentucky, 22-year-old Hannah Adams found herself with a front-row view of the process, after she was sent back home from college and moved back in with her mom, who was in the midst of adopting a foster child.

As a result, Hannah made a 12-minute audio documentary about the experience for the Appalachian Media Institute, called “Foster Care in a Pandemic World.”

New Fathers and Quarantine Babies

Becoming a parent can be scary. Add a global pandemic into the equation and that can make things even scarier. This week, we check back in with new fathers, including Joe Buckland, of Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. His fiancé gave birth to their daughter in early 2020, just before the global pandemic.

Buckland reflected on the memories that stand out to him from the past year, including moments where he and his family found peace together. He recalled an evening last summer when he was rocking his daughter Olivia to sleep. “And she just nuzzled in. And it just felt complete.”

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Courtesy Joe Buckland
Joe Buckland and his fiancé Hayley with their newborn daughter Olivia.

Buckland’s fiancé works as a recovery counselor, so Buckland has become the full-time caregiver for their daughter during the day. Early in the pandemic he was furloughed from his job, but he’s gone back to working in the evenings at a restaurant in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. The time he’s had with his daughter has allowed them to bond in a way many dads don’t get a chance to. But he still worries it’s not enough. "She’s shy with other family members that she doesn’t see very often," Buckland said. "And you know I wonder what kind of developmental issues the isolation that we’ve had to have her in is causing."

 

Teens in Wales and Appalachia Share Commonalities

Appalachia’s had hundreds of years of connection to Wales; why should the pandemic get in the way? A group of teenagers from Wales and Appalachia have been sending each other audio letters over the last year. Sam McCarthy and Ela Cudlip are from Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. And Brooke Thomas and Mackenzie Kessler are from Fayette County, West Virginia.

They shared their stories about how their family and school lives have been impacted by the pandemic, and it turns out, much of what they’ve experienced is universal. Their past year has been marked by upended milestones, like delays in getting their driver’s licenses.

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Courtesy Sam McCarthy and Ela Cudlip
Sam McCarthy and Ela Cudlip are from Merthyr Tydfil, Wales and have been exchanging audio diaries with teens in Fayette County, W.Va.

Road to Recovery

Going forward, there’s a long road to recovery, whether it’s of our social lives, our jobs, or our health. We’ve lost over half a million Americans, and some COVID-19 long-haulers are still dealing with lingering health effects. Others have made a full recovery after fearing for their lives.

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Courtesy Robert Villamagna, @wv_tinman on Instagram
Robert Villamagna, a professional artist in Wheeling, W.Va, tested positive for COVID-19 in July 2020. We caught up with Robert to see how he is doing now.

That was the case for Robert Villamagna, who lives in Wheeling, West Virginia. He got a serious case of COVID-19 and was hospitalized twice. Last year, we twice featured Villamagna on Inside Appalachia. In this episode, we catch up with him again to see how things are going now.

Listener Voicemails

Our team was curious: How has the pandemic affected your life? We heard from several listeners, including April Shannon who created an indie radio station in Huntington, West Virginia. Shannon said she and some unsigned indie artists are working on releasing a CD.

We also heard from Meghan Keck in Logan County, West Virginia. Since the pandemic, she and her husband haven’t been able to go out to restaurants, so they began purchasing cookbooks and cooking their way through them. Keck also took the opportunity to start graduate school since her employment slowed down.

We love hearing from our listeners. If you have a pandemic silver lining you’d like to share with us, you can leave a voicemail at 304-460-5582, or email us at InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.

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Dealing with COVID-Related Burnout

The past year has been tough on all of us. Many people are starting to feel pandemic-related fatigue. Carol Smith, professor of counseling at Marshall University, said it’s normal to feel burned out. Issues have compounded on each other and have left people feeling down.

“We will do our best when we dig down into our Mountaineer roots and know that we’re all doing the best we can. We pull together, we’re compassionate towards one another, and we give each other just a little more margin,” Smith said. “More breathing space, a little more benefit of the doubt and have this sort of comradery - a fellow feeling - that we all got through this together, and isn’t that something good?” Smith said.

Smith said being kind to ourselves is key to getting through social isolation. She also suggested against scheduling tasks back-to-back, as it doesn’t give our brain time to rest.

If you or someone you know need to talk to a mental health professional, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline. The number is 1-800-662-4357.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Blue Dot Sessions and Spencer Elliot.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
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 joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Jade Artherhults is the associate producer for Inside Appalachia and is based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jartherhults@wvpublic.org or @JArtherhults on Twitter.