Building Stronger Communities: the first in a series on an internship program aimed at creating future leaders in Central Appalachia.

Do I really want to live here forever?

That’s the question on the mind of many young Appalachians today as they forge their own paths into the world. Discontent with the area’s recreational, economic, and environmental outlook, they are flocking to metropolitan areas and developing their professional skills with no predicted return to the area in which they grew up in. That is not to say that Appalachia’s young people do not value their roots, but the reality is that there is a struggle to stay, and this struggle to stay is a direct contributor to persistent poverty affecting the region.

Sierra as a child.

As a young girl, I was always told to leave. As a matter of fact, as a young adult, the idea of leaving was so ingrained into me that I hadn’t even bothered to think about staying in West Virginia. I wanted to go to the big city and have a career in a field that people in my area thought was meaningful (ergo, paid a lot), like Business or Law. Fast forward to now: I have a degree in Communication, and I still live and work in Appalachia, and I have no plans to ever permanently move to a big city. So what happened?

I left. Like so many other young Appalachians, I packed my things and embarked on a new adventure. Berea, Kentucky, was the big city for me, which was quite laughable to most of my friends. The very real delight that came from having a grocery store within walking distance was very unreal for them, even though some of them came from areas that were more rural than Berea. The reality was that I wasn’t accustomed to such accessibility; I remember calling home to tell my granny that there was a Walmart only a mile from my apartment.

Sierra

So I went through college with my son, got married, had another baby, traveled, worked, and grew overall as a person. I’ve grown accustomed to having resources available to me and understanding that where there are no resources, there is opportunity for growth. I never lost sight of where I came from, visiting back home with my family as often as I could. Each time, I would make mental notes of the changes that happened in my hometown, good and bad, and I made lists of what I thought would benefit the town, maps of where things could go, and I rattled on to my husband about how I would always miss home. The people, I insisted, were irreplaceably caring and loyal, never hesitating to ask me about school or how my grandparents are doing even though I had seemingly abandoned the area.

West Virginia Flood

However, it wasn’t until the summer before my senior year in college when I decided that I wanted to serve the Appalachian region. I had an internship in western New York, and there was a harsh flood that deeply affected my hometown community. I wanted desperately to go home, and it was then that I realized how strongly dedicated I felt to my mountain home of West Virginia. To commemorate the occasion, I got a tattoo of West Virginia on my wrist, so that I would never forget how I felt when I was so many long miles away when my home needed me.

Sierra tattoo

These feelings were all because I hadn’t been immune to the struggles of being Appalachian. Oftentimes, it is difficult to describe the experience to those outsiders who grew up outside of the mountains. Since I was a native, and I knew very well the problems of the area, who would be better to fix them? I want my children to never feel the pressure that I felt to leave; I want them to know that they can make a future anywhere they choose. My hope is to build a future where other young people feel that problems in their area aren’t so deeply ingrained into the culture that they can take it upon themselves to create solutions to fix them. We need to return to the region and build their futures there for the future of Appalachia to be successful, because it’s our home, and we know each other better than anyone else. A lot of the systemic issues at hand are caused by a contentedness for the status quo, but we know that we can do better, and we should stop being content with what we have and work to exceed our own expectations.

Thankfully, there are a plethora of organizations in Appalachia working to alleviate the hardships imposed on residents that come simply from living there. An example of this is Fahe, which is an Appalachian nonprofit Membership organization.  Fahe brings together their 50+ Members to collaborate with other local and regional organizations to achieve Fahe’s ultimate goal, which is to eliminate persistent poverty in Appalachia

Part of accomplishing this mission is to fix the struggle to stay. While this is obviously a large, overarching issue, Fahe has already taken the major components of the problem and implemented a solution that could greatly benefit the Appalachian region.  The CHEF (Community Housing & Economic Fellowship) Program is a Fahe-based, Rural LISC funded program, spanning three states that is providing internship opportunities so that young people can experience what “boots on the ground” really means. For 12 weeks, interns are placed in a service area in their industry of interest, working on service projects and gaining unmatched professional experience from CHEF mentors. From finance to advocacy, there is a place for those interested in serving Appalachia to experience hands-on learning and seeing firsthand what their impact looks like and who it affects. In this experience, interns gain leadership experience that makes them invaluable innovators in the future. The hope is that young professionals from the program, such as the other interns and myself, will spread our enthusiasm for service work in Appalachia to others as well as settle in the region and help make it prosperous in the future. This is significant, because doing so could mean a more industrial Appalachia with more job opportunity, meaning that all kinds of people would be more likely to visit and settle here to generate economic activity.

In the weeks to come, we will share interns’ experiences on the Fahe blog and also to social media. If you wish to follow our stories and see how powerful the CHEF program truly is, check back every day.