Alt. Spring Break unites students, West Virginia Coaling Community

Alt. Spring Break unites students, West Virginia Coaling Community

Tama Moni
The Dai­ly Campus
March 27, 2017
OAK HILL, W.Va.—Dilap­i­dat­ed. Decrepit. Destitute.

Those were the first three words that came to my mind when I arrived in West Vir­ginia for an alter­na­tive spring break. I went with 52 oth­er UConn stu­dents on a coach bus that would take us to Oak Hill—the town where our vol­un­teer ser­vice was locat­ed. As the bus moved through the state, I could see moun­tains stripped from their veg­e­ta­tion by the win­ter weath­er. Rocky rivers, with a teal tint, flow­ing through the val­leys. Unlike some homes in the north­east, the homes in West Vir­ginia were vast­ly spread out. About one or two homes per hill, that were most­ly one one-sto­ry with zinc roofs, peeled paint—they looked like shacks. Most of the homes I passed by were run-down or abandoned.

  It was an inter­est­ing con­trast. The beau­ti­ful scenery from the sur­round­ing nature along with signs of pover­ty all inter­con­nect­ing. You see the full pic­ture; not just the good parts and not just the bad parts.

 In order to get on an alter­na­tive spring break trip, you need to apply. This can be done through Com­mu­ni­ty Out­reach, Habi­tat for Human­i­ty or in the Hon­ors Pro­gram. I applied through Com­mu­ni­ty Outreach. 

For­mer ele­men­tary school turned room and board for vol­un­teers in Oak Hill, W.Va.  (Tama Moni/The Dai­ly Campus)

 So, I should prob­a­bly tell you a bit about me. I am a sopho­more and jour­nal­ism and human rights dou­ble major here at UConn. I want­ed to go on this trip because I want­ed to observe and know more about rur­al pover­ty in Amer­i­ca. I think it makes a jour­nal­ist look bet­ter if they report from a hands-on expe­ri­ence instead of just read­ing or hear­ing or watch­ing something.

 I would say the best part of going on an alter­na­tive break trip was inter­act­ing with the locals and con­nect­ing with the stu­dents in your group. This is the type of trip that if you put your effort and heart into it, you will gain much out of it. 

John David, is the direc­tor of the South­ern Appalachi­an Labor School, also known as SALS and an Ameri­CORPS VISTA work­er. SALS was one of two local orga­ni­za­tions we part­nered with, to help with con­struc­tion work of run­down, aban­doned homes. He works for Ameri­CORPS, which is a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion that takes vol­un­teers and puts them in impov­er­ished neigh­bor­hoods in Amer­i­ca, to help locals rebuild their community.

David gave us a lec­ture on the his­to­ry of West Vir­ginia and how the state went from a boom­ing coal min­ing indus­try to eco­nom­i­cal­ly and social­ly dis­ad­van­taged. He said West Vir­ginia was a labor state with large influ­ence from unions. He said after WWII coal was not used as much, which was the first hit and then it was used for elec­tric­i­ty instead to make prod­ucts, which was the sec­ond hit. He said that Jen­ny Lind Hous­es were built for fam­i­lies of the coal min­ers near the coal fac­to­ries. These hous­es are still there, but are now abandoned.

Appalachi­an moun­tain­tops that were blast­ed off for coal deposits. Deposits are tox­ic and can go into the river–the water sup­ply. (Tama Moni/The Dai­ly Campus)

 He said that the coal min­ing decline has left many feel­ing hope­less, because of employ­ment and poor gov­ern­ment infrastructure.

“There are a lot of peo­ple that are hope­ful that coal will come back,” David said.

 I would say much of this hope­ful­ness comes from the recent elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Since there were 53 of us on this trip, we were divid­ed into 4 groups. They were blue, pur­ple, yel­low and orange teams. I was placed in the pur­ple team. That includ­ed me and 11 oth­er UConn stu­dents. Each team had a team leader and learn­ing part­ner that would tell us what build­ing site we were going to and reflect with us each night on what we learned on the trip and our gen­er­al feelings.

Scott Sei­gle is a Senior and Health­care Man­age­ment major at UConn. This was his third alt break. He said he liked going on alt breaks because you learn more about a com­mu­ni­ty and yourself.

“I want­ed a trip with peo­ple … like [I] nev­er met,” Sei­gle said.

The leader of my team, Heather Knorr, is a senior and envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing major at UConn. She was in charge of pro­vid­ing ques­tions for our group reflec­tion and direct­ed our group’s activities.

She described how this alt break trip impact­ed her through the peo­ple she met and the work she did.

“It was an eye-open­ing expe­ri­ence and I learned immense­ly from the peo­ple in West Vir­ginia, as well as all of my team mem­bers,” Knorr said. “I am so grate­ful for all of the growth and the bonds that will last a lifetime.” 

Since this was my first one, I would say that meet­ing new peo­ple and lis­ten­ing to their sto­ries was the best part of the trip.

At our build­ing site, we met up with four youth builders that helped us paint and prime a house that was being remod­eled. The youth builders worked in SALS.

Jonathan “Swaff” Swaf­ford was one of the youth builders that we worked with. He is 26 years old and has three chil­dren. In between the jokes and the work­ing, at times it would get seri­ous when he talked about his past.

View from atop a hilly street over­look­ing the rest of town. The Appalachi­an moun­tain sets the back­ground, while the riv­er flows. (Tama Moni/The Dai­ly Campus)

He said that his children’s moth­er does not live with him and that they have a dif­fi­cult rela­tion­ship. Yet, he remind­ed us of his love for his children.

“I want my fam­i­ly to grow up know­ing they have a father,” Swaf­ford said.

On Wednes­day night, SALS had a coun­try singer come and enter­tain us. His name was Bil­ly Payne and he described his style of coun­try music as out­law country.

Payne, a native of West Vir­ginia, said he’s been play­ing music for about 26 or 27 years. He said that his biggest con­cert was for a Texas inter­net radio sta­tion, in which 6.8 mil­lion peo­ple heard his music.

He described how he writes his music.

“You don’t just start writ­ing imme­di­ate­ly,” Payne said. ““You got­ta [got to] live it.”

One of the favorite peo­ple I met, would be Paul Cor­bit Brown, who is a pho­to­jour­nal­ist that now works for Keep­er of the Moun­tain Foun­da­tion, or KOMF for short. KOMF rais­es aware­ness about moun­tain top strip­ping and how the tox­ic min­er­als that come from that affect the envi­ron­ment and then the peo­ple liv­ing in the area.

He gave each team a string that we could tie on our wrist. He said the rea­son for the string was to show us that humans are a part of nature, not sep­a­rate of it.

“We need you to be there to help hold this togeth­er,” Brown said. ““Many fibers make the rope.”

Dur­ing the week, we had a rou­tine every day. We had to wake up around 7a.m. or 8a.m. and would be doing work for almost a whole day. There are times you might feel uncom­fort­able, because you’re in an envi­ron­ment you’re not used to. But that goes away quick­ly once you push that aside and remem­ber why you decid­ed to be on this trip.

As I board­ed the coach bus head­ing back to Storrs, I reflect­ed on the quick week that I spent in West Vir­ginia. I have now acquired knowl­edge of a State, of a com­mu­ni­ty that I would nev­er have met before. I have observed anoth­er part of Amer­i­ca that most don’t get to see and took what I learned and will bring it to my own envi­ron­ment. Also, I now have con­nec­tions with more UConn stu­dents instead of it being lim­it­ed to my usu­al cir­cle of friends. 

Now, my three words that I would use to describe this expe­ri­ence: Insight­ful. Inter­wo­ven. Inspiring.