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Hope Is Dying in McDowell County


My host slows and points out of the driver’s side window.

“That’s a drug house. That one, too. And that one. And that one. Methamphetamine and OxyContin mostly, but some heroin. How bad is the problem? There have been cases when children had to be removed from the home because parents sold them for sex to get drug money.”

When I left the region in 1987, McDowell County was already in steep decline. The biggest blow came when United States Steel closed its mining operations around Gary, adding more than 1,000 to an unemployment rate that exceeded 80 percent in some communities. If I spent the day there looking for stories, I could expect to see at least a dozen U-Haul vehicles, or the like, loaded up and heading out.

Those who remained held out hope.

Maybe coal will make a comeback. Maybe another industry will move in. There was talk of building a new road -- the King Coal Highway – along the existing U.S. Route 52 corridor. Maybe this stretch of four-lane – the county’s first – will breathe new life into the area. Maybe a chain restaurant or a chain motel – the county’s first – will plant roots.

But it’s as I feared. No to all of the above. McDowell County is 29 years worse. Indeed, some Third World nations would make a better impression on a visitor.

The falling-down dwellings aren’t new to me. The boarded-up storefronts aren’t new. The switchback curves on twisty Route 16 coming in and out of War still give me the same headache. Residents still crack the same joke – “When somebody invents a way to grow flat land, we’ll be just fine.”

On our drive around War, my host spots more than a dozen known drug users hoofing it on the dusty streets.

“We call them the walking dead,” my host explains. “You look into their eyes and nothing’s there. McDowell County averages something like 11 drug overdoses every month. On several occasions, kids have come home to find Mom or Dad dead with a needle in the arm.”

This is new to me, and it speaks to the jacked-up level of hopelessness in the air.

The overwhelming majority of school children in the county qualify for free lunch. Many come to class almost in rags. Teachers outfit them in clothes and shoes donated by those aware of just how bad the situation is.

Bernie Sanders speaking recently at a food bank in McDowell County.

  I owe a lot to McDowell County. I learned to write by interviewing dozens of plucky men and women who were proud to call the place home. Early United Mine Workers organizers. Coal miners who hand-loaded epic amounts of product. Survivors of mine explosions. A fellow who never owned a car and rode horses to get from here to there. A female furrier who carved muskrats while eating peanut-butter sandwiches.

Maybe there is a way to help children -- here and in other poverty-wracked parts of the nation.

Several charitable groups around War – mostly churches – help fund a clothing account to help the neediest boys and girls. School employees send the items home in what are called “Friday Packs.”

What if the charitable giving could be larger in scope?

The United States is filled with folks who are strong believers in the power of education. They know results aren’t guaranteed even in affluent communities. They know the heavy odds against success in places where most of the checks are cut not by employers, but the government in the form of aid payments.

These men and women are eager to contribute. Let’s give them an address.

What if there was a clearinghouse organization on a national level that could prioritize needs and channel donations where they would do the most good?

Schools on Native American reservations. In poverty pockets of the Mississippi Delta. In crumbling neighborhoods of cities like Detroit.

And schools in McDowell County.

What if trained operatives from the organization could spend time in at-risk communities and offer strategies for residents to help themselves?

Hope could mount a comeback.

Before it’s too late.

Garret Mathews wrote feature stories and, later, columns for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph from 1972 until 1987 when he was hired to write the metro column for the Evansville, Ind., Courier & Press. His legacy website can be accessed at www.pluggerpublishing.com. The Telegraph’s circulation area includes McDowell County. Before mine mechanization took root in the early 1950s, the population hovered around 100,000. Today, it’s less than 20,000. Fewer than one in three residents are in the labor force. E-mail Garret Mathews at garretmath@gmail.com



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