Hearing From Kermit

Sep 11, 2019

The small, southern West Virginia town of Kermit has had more than its fair share of national headlines regarding its struggle with the opioid crisis. 

But few stories focus on the people themselves. Earlier this summer, we visited Kermit to ask residents how they think the town can reinvent itself. 

We spoke with more than the four residents listed below, but a central theme in all of our conversations was “need.” Community leaders and residents all pointed to a need for more federal and state funding. A need for more local treatment options and compassion. A need for economic development, local employers, and education both in and outside of Kermit. 

‘The Absence of Choices and Opportunities’ 

Sister Therese Carew has been living in Kermit for more than ten years now. She runs Christian Help, a public charity that provides food, donated clothing, free transportation and more to residents of Kermit and the rest of Mingo County. 

Christian Help is a public charity in Kermit that provides free transportation, food, clothing and other resources to Mingo County residents.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Christian Help is located along the Tug River that separates West Virginia from Kentucky. It’s down the road from Town Hall, near a cluster of yard-sale-like setups, where people sell things like clothing and kids' toys.

“This is pretty much always out,” Carew said of the for-sale stands earlier this summer. “Sometimes it really is their own stuff they’re selling, sometimes it’s stuff from Christian Help.”

Carew has come to know Kermit’s unincorporated communities better than most, just by driving people around. She and her staff give rides to many who live on the outskirts of the Kermit area, in neighborhoods leading up to the mountain. 

The further from town you get, Carew said, the poorer structures begin to look. There are a few really nice houses, with well-maintained driveways and statues of gold lions at the entrance, but there’s even more mobile homes, and small wooden structures.  

“There’s no zoning. So, the properties, you can have a $250,000 home like on this curve, and then across the street there could be a trailer,” she said. 

A lot of the people Carew helps don’t have their own vehicles.  

“I just took a man home up a gravel road up here I had never been on before, but he was walking with, like, eight bags of groceries in Warfield. It was ten o’clock in the morning and already 90 degrees, and he already looked like he was dying, trying to walk and carry his groceries. So, I just stopped and said, ‘I’m Sister Therese from Christian Help. Can I give you a ride?’”

It’s even harder to walk to some of the larger grocery stores and medical centers, which are located half an hour south by car in Williamson. 

“It’s the absence of choices and opportunities,” Carew said. “When I was a kid, we could walk three blocks and get to the drug store in town, which was the pharmacy, but it also had cards and toiletries and stuff, kind of the ‘prelude’ to the minimart. And it had a candy counter, so you could get your ten cents allowance, and you could walk and go get your candy,” Carew said. “There’s no bowling alleys [here]. You haven’t seen a minimart to go buy a popsicle or a pop on a summer day, there’s just nothing.”

‘For Good or Bad, It’s Just Home’

Carew runs Christian Help in Kermit. But she doesn’t do it alone— she works with a staff of about eight people, including Etta Lea Kiser, a mother and a Kermit native. 

Etta Lea Kiser, a Kermit resident, works with Sister Therese Carew at Christian Help in Kermit.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s where I was raised,” Kiser said. “This will just always be home to me. Always. I guess for good or bad, it’s just home.”

About 20 years ago, Kiser developed an addiction to opioids. Most recently, she’s been in recovery for two years. As hard of a time as she’s had with substance use disorder and recovery in Kermit, she said she likes that her friends and neighbors know her, and know her story. 

“I love the fact that it is a small community, because you kind of know everybody, and if you don't know everybody you at least know a family member.”

A lot has changed since Kiser was a kid in Kermit. Businesses have left. Many of the coal jobs that supported families in the area are gone, and nothing has replaced them. More people are using more drugs.  

“And it’s just sad,” Kiser said. “It’s just sad to watch people’s lives just being destroyed, and there’s no help.”

Kiser said she hopes to use her experiences with recovery to make a difference in her community. Earlier in the summer, she said she completed training to become a certified recovery coach, and she was in the process of becoming a licensed peer support specialist. That means she’ll be able to connect people dealing with substance use disorder to treatment options.

Etta Lea Kiser, a Kermit resident, works with Sister Therese Carew at Christian Help.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“For addicts to be able to talk and feel safe, and not judged, and trusted by a peer, that’s a safe space.”

According to Kiser, sharing her experience will bring awareness to the issue and encourage others to share their own stories.

“I have a daughter. And I want to show her that no matter what mistakes you make you can always, you can always start over,” she said tearfully. “No matter what, you can always start over.”

‘When You View Your Loved One’

Joseph Mullins is the director of the Mullins Family Funeral Home in Warfield, Kentucky. His is one of three nearby funeral homes serving families around the Kermit-Warfield area. He’s also a local minister and the former Martin County coroner.   

“The age of people dying has been a lot younger than what you would anticipate,” Mullins said. “Not only due to the drug epidemic, but there have been a lot more deaths due to people not caring about their lives like they used to.”

His work now allows him to deal with the opioid crisis on a more personal level.

“To me, I think that when you view your loved one, it is very important to the family that you bring back to their remembrance not someone who had been sick, but someone who was healthy and had a lot of life to them, and someone who looks younger than they look now.”

But giving someone a respectful sendoff doesn’t mean you have to ignore the cause of death, Mullins said. Even if it was an overdose. 

“A lot of families don’t like that idea. I guess because they’re thinking, well, they’re the reason they’re here, or whatever. And they want to shove things under the rug, a lot of times.” 

In a community as small as his, news gets around fast. There’s no use in trying to hide or ignore an overdose, Mullins said, and acknowledging the reality might even save someone else’s life.

Joseph Mullins owns the Mullins Family Funeral Home in Warfield, Kentucky.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It was sad when I would be called out on a coroner's call, when they would call me and tell me what area to go to, and I would know the cause of death before I got there. It’s sad that you know an area that well, that you can judge what a person died from before you can get to them. 

“I just think that with more education and teaching our people more about it, they wouldn’t be so quick to do what they’re doing.”

‘A Good Town, With a Lot of Good People’

Mullins isn’t the only one who deals with the day-to-day impacts of substance use disorder in his work. Back in Kermit, police chief Ernie Chambers said a new drug — meth — is taking over. And it’s bringing more crime. 

“Times are changing. I won’t lie to you,” Chambers said. “Back in the day, when you had the opioid crisis, everywhere sold pills, they’d barter, they would do different things. It wasn’t so much breaking, entering and stealing. Now, it’s a little different.”

Even with the opioid crisis, Chambers said his work has never been too much for him or other local law enforcement to handle. But with methamphetamine-use growing more popular nationwide— Kermit included— he’s noticing more trouble.

A 'Welcome to Kermit' sign advertises the local high school, Christian Help, A.B.L.E. Families and the Kermit Police Department.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s readily available in just about every corner of this country, not just Kermit. So, it’s becoming a major problem. And I hate to say it, but it’s here to stay.”

From his work and his training, Chambers said there’s two major differences between opioids and meth— meth is cheaper, and it’s stronger.

“What people don’t understand is, usually, once you start taking that stuff, within a five-year period, if you continuously use it, it will kill you from the inside out."

As the area’s meth use becomes worse and the opioid crisis isn’t exactly solved, Chambers said there’s a stronger need than ever for places to put people, other than jail. Ultimately, Chambers said he just wants to see people, and his town, get help. 

“I don’t want this town to turn into another small-town U.S.A. that has a drug lord on another corner. And I work feverishly— I work two shifts every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday— to keep that from happening to this town.

“This is a good town, with a lot of good people that back law enforcement. This town is financially strapped, and … this town deserves, with the people that live here, the best law enforcement that money can get.”

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.