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Bereans reflect on W.Va mine disaster and Appalachian values

April 9: Students pass out black ribbons to teach their peers about the people impacted in Appalachia who work and live in coal communities.

Bereans for Appalachia

Student members of Bereans for Appalachia handed out black ribbons to honor the memory of the coal miners who were missing after a mining accident in Raleigh County, W.Va. The mining accident occurred around 3 p.m. April 5 at the Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine-South. The Loyal Jones Appalachian Center also distributed the ribbons in its efforts to educate the campus community about the impact of mining in the Appalachian region.

Samantha Cole, a junior Appalachian Studies major, shared that she was moved to hand out ribbons after she had read an article stating that this was the biggest mining disaster in the United States since 1884. Sam has been a member of Bereans for Appalachia since the club was first recognized as a student organization in 2009. The Berea College chapter was founded by Berea graduate Beth Bissmeyer who now works for the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) and has been active with organizations such as Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC).

Influenced by KFTC’s efforts to educate Kentucky residents about the impact of mountaintop removal and coal mining on the health of the community that depend on the industry, Bereans for Appalachia has also focused many of its efforts upon raising awareness of issues associated with coal mining, including the environmental effects, how the coal industry impacts economic development and how those who live in declining coal communities have worked to support one another when companies leave and workers are left without money in their pockets. Samantha, who grew up in Eastern Kentucky recalls many stories where the women in her family and church community have gotten together and helped stock a neighbor’s pantry or to help them move their belongings when they were going through a hard time.

Samantha remembers one instance in which neighbors even helped her grandparents raise a new barn after the old one burned down. “At the time there was no road, where my road was, it was all dirt,” Samantha began. “They couldn’t bring a fire truck in because it was too muddy; and it (the barn) completely burned to the ground. My grandparents lost everything. A day later, a bunch of people showed up and asked them if they needed their house rebuilt. And they were like – well yeah we do, but there have been plenty of times when people have come by the house and offered to help build a fence, put up a porch – all kinds of things.”

Samantha joined Bereans for Appalachia because the organization, along with the Appalachian Center has become a safe haven for her to learn more about her culture and reinforce the strong sense of community values that have been instilled in her at home. Through the campus group, students have been given the opportunity to work with legislators to protect the interests of those living in coal communities, attend conferences, such as the I Love Mountains Day event in Frankfort and has even helped lobby state representatives to protect a family living next to a mountaintop removal site, who lost their home when a runaway boulder came crashing through their house.

Samantha believes that people in the Appalachian region who have become impoverished have become so because of the exploitation of outside investors in the extraction industries such as coal mining, timber, and the media who take advantage of the hard work ethic of the rural community based people who live in Appalachia and continue to contribute to the negative stereotypes.

Bereans for Appalachia and the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center also provide students the opportunity to read regional literature or view film showings in which they can discuss their own perceptions of the work of writers from outside the region, or writers who grew up in Appalachia but did not understand that they were perpetuating negative stereotype at the time. Cole was particularly disturbed by a negative news report given by Diane Sawyer that gave a very one dimensional view of Appalachian poverty.

“Yes we have problems like anywhere else in the country. But she (Sawyer) tended to emphasize negative things to show that these people were impoverished because of choices that they made; and of course that’s not historically accurate at all,” said Samantha. “As sad as it is, we all know about the editing process. Look at these poor people living in the mountains. Look at how bad they are. Aren’t you glad that you’re not them? They (the media) just see what they want to see. A lot of times they don’t even live here.”

The organization believes that it is important that the students who live in the campus community learn more about the region and the roots of many of the community values that help it to thrive. Berea College’s commitment to provide quality education and equal opportunities to students from the Appalachian region has brought many bright and resourceful students like Samantha Cole and Beth Bissemeyer who form groups like Bereans for Appalachia to enrich the spirit of the campus community because they have learned through their own service learning the benefit of developing the community from within.

“Within the community, outside help is always helpful, but only to an extent,” Samantha warns.

“Right now there’s this sort of thing in the region where a lot of local people are wary of outsiders now. That’s understandable if you read about what’s happened in the past. I think there is a lot of potential for transformation from the inside out. When I look at my own hometown, I see so many good things; in the people, in the community and the work ethic. There’s art and culture that never gets talked about and specialized skills that aren’t really utilized for profit. I didn’t really appreciate that as a kid, but now that I’m older I think about those things a lot. There are so many people here who are doing all of these extra things on the side just to get by, but there’s so much talent here that people don’t even seem to know about.”

And so each black ribbon that Samantha and the students she works with hands out, becomes an instant reminder to her classmates and community of why we should remember these values.

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