In the past year and a half I have met a lot of people. Every day I meet new people in Hazard and Perry County, and amazingly this diverse group of people almost always says the same two things when they have met me. First is, “You don’t sound like you are from around here,” and the second is, “So how long do you think you will stay here?”
While I expected the first question since I am lacking the Appalachian twang in my mid-western accent, the second caught me off guard the first few times I heard it. I couldn’t imagine why people would assume I would move to the area just to plan my own departure. But within a few weeks I began to see why.
Many of the people that move to Eastern Kentucky come with a ticking clock in their head, saying, “When it is time to take the experience gained, the certifications, the résumé builder and move on to something better?”
Whenever I got this question of how long I planned to stay in Hazard, I would typically answer, “Well, as long as you will have me.” Over the last year and a half this statement hasn’t changed, but I have found myself plotting my next move.
I first came to Eastern Kentucky in 2005 with the Appalachia Service Project. I came back in 2007 as a staffer and had to hope I would have the chance to come back again until being hired by The Hazard Herald in 2011.
While in college I found a love for journalism, but I can’t be sure when my love for the mountains began.
Being a 24-year-old, I have considered that I want to move forward with my career and do more, but I found myself conflicted between those two loves — stay in journalism and be forced to leave the area, or stay in Hazard and try to make my way back into the nonprofit sector. I have agonized over this for months, but finally the mountains won out.
An opportunity came to stay in Hazard while still moving forward in my career, and I am happy to say I was offered a job at the Housing Development Alliance. However, I am sad to say that this is my last week with The Hazard Herald.
Over the last year and a half I have learned so much and met so many incredible people, including the people at the Herald. I came into this job with photography experience but little to no writing experience, so everything I know about writing I have learned from my editor, Cris Ritchie, though I am not sure he wants to claim me as his student. He has also managed to teach me a quite colorful new vocabulary, a lot about Star Wars, and also how to be a great boss some day.
I moved three and a half hours away from my family but never felt I was without one. The staff at the Herald and the people of Perry County have welcomed me into their homes and families. I was invited to family dinners, picnics, and even on a trip to Cherokee Lake. I could not believe the generosity and openness of the people I met who nearly all offered me a place at their table whenever I liked.
It is because of this that I came to want the best for the people and the county and often write my column about economic development, beautification, and incorrect stereotypes of the region. This has gotten me some ridicule at times, but mostly gained me the respect of like-minded people. I plan to continue to do what I can for this area in my new position with the Housing Development Alliance.
I strongly believe in the potential of the mountains and its people. History has shown that this is by far one of the most resilient areas of the world, and that the people here have been able to make it through everything from coal wars, to poverty, to the “Dukes of Hazzard” series.
Right now the area is at a crossroads, much as it always is, between the way of life that it has known with an economy based almost solely on coal, and diversifying and hopefully creating an alternative economic cornerstone on which to build. Even with coal at its highest levels and the lowest levels of unemployment in the mid 1990s, Eastern Kentucky had to fight poverty and now a growing drug problem.
I say we use this slowing of the coal industry as a rallying cry to demand the best of ourselves and our leaders. To take on the economic problems, diversify the economy, and face the issues of poverty and joblessness head on. Coal is and will remain and important part of Eastern Kentucky and Perry County, and we need to use the money it brings to create a stable and lasting home for future generations while we still can.
We need to teach the children of the area to fish and then give them a pond in which to catch them instead of giving them fish that is handed to them from other ponds. We can do this through education and supporting local industry.
What may be only a small new business on Main Street could grow to a national company if it has enough support and patronage. These small businesses can turn into our future and the future of our area.
It is this potential, this wide open array of options, that makes me believe in Perry County, that also makes me want to stay and be a part of it all.
So to answer your question, I am from Cincinnati, but I have my home here and I don’t plan on leaving. At some point I may be forced to, but I plan on riding this economic storm out with you and I truly hope we both come out of it for the better.