Mount Hope

 

View from work site in Mount Hope

We continue to work each day in Mount Hope.  The boys are talking to me now but are still very quiet.  They love to ask me, “Can’t you find something to paint?” when they see me standing around.  Painting seems to be the area they stick me- until today when I actually got to cut and hang drywall.  Brian has been the one to talk to me the most.  He has an amazing story of trying to get himself set straight.

John and Brian (L-R)

Brian:

Brian is 24 years old and has been with SALS (Southern Appalachian Labor School) for about five years.  His Dad left he and his three brothers when he was young and he was raised by his step Father who died a few years ago.  Brian only has an eighth grade education.  He spent six years in a four year school and quickly discovered the best gig there was to be the bully.  True to his red hair, he had a temper and was kicked out of several schools for fighting.  Finally, the courts had had enough and told him that he could no longer attend any Fayetteville schools.  They wouldn’t bus him to another district and his family couldn’t drive him, so he dropped out of school.  After being sent “away” to juvenile prison for 6 months and “going crazy from counting the blocks on the wall,” he decided he never wanted to go back there.  He was then sentenced to go to work for SALS.

Most people have to apply to SALS.  You have to fill out the forms and then take a proficiency exam.  SALS requires you to obtain your GED while you are in the program.  There was a time where they accepted just about anyone willing and wanting a second chance.  According to Billy, “There were a bunch of thieves, drunks, and drug addicts that you couldn’t trust.  They would steal from the site or home owners or anyone.  They would let them in straight out of prison.”  He said that he used to steal but no longer does it because he now knows how hard you have to work to get stuff and he doesn’t want anyone ripping him off so he wouldn’t do that to anyone.  Although he has tried his best to stay out of trouble, he was recently arrested when he slapped a coworker who he caught stealing.  The coworker was sent to another site and hasn’t pushed through any charges.  He also has to go testify in a case where he is being accused of pulling a knife on a woman.  He says that he has witnesses to testify that all he did was yell at her, but with his previous record it might be hard, even with witnesses, to prove his case.  Apparently the woman called his mom a “pill popping whore” and I have found, Appalachian boys are very protective of their mothers.

Brian is having a hard time passing the last two sections of his GED. He struggles in math because he never got to take high school math classes. Until then, he can stay with SALS and receive a stipend of approximately $600 a month.  He says that it is easy money, and for now he can live on it since he is still living at home with his mom, his three brothers, his girl friend, and his brother’s girl friend. When he does complete it, he plans on going to electrical school.

Through all of this, Brian is taking the right steps to help himself.  He is trying to stay out of trouble.  He is looking ahead to electrical school, and when the supervisor leaves the site, Brian is in charge.  He can do the plumbing, run electrical, hang drywall, and a whole host of other things.  It is different for the kids working on these sites.  They have to do all the jobs.  They are the electricians, the plumbers the trim guys, and the painters.  You name it, and they can do it.  As I was sitting talking to Brian, I asked him about the F.T.W tattoo that he had on his hand.  I had seen it before a few days earlier on another boy.  The letters stand for “Fuck the World” or on a good day “For the Women” he told me. He also has the words “Rock Life” across his knuckles.  He told me that it used to say, “Fuck Life”, but now that he has to get a job he wanted to make it more respectable.

Brian’s story is the story of many here.  He is one of the lucky ones who found SALS and is getting a leg up on life.  In a county with no movie theater, no teen center, and no bowling alley, there is little else to do, so the kids find trouble.  The supervisor on the site, Jim, is running for mayor.  He hopes to try to start finding things for the kids to do.  He would like to create places for them to go to try to keep them out of trouble.  The father of three, he knows how important this is.  For now, the job site in Mount Hope is teaching them the skills they need to make their lives a little better.

For now, some say that Brian is taking advantage of Youth Build since most kids usually leave the program within a year.  The supervisor relies on him heavily, and it is felt he might even be sabotaging Brian’s education.  For only 24, Brian knows what he has to do, and he sees that a better future is right around the corner.

There’s more than Moonshine in West Virginia

Global Volunteers, the organization that I am here with, works with the local organization, Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) in West Virginia.

Banner outside the Community Center

SALS mission states that:

“SALS is to provide education, research and linkages for working class and disenfranchised people in order to promote understanding, empowerment and change.  SALS is committed to developing a real comprehension of the social, economic and legal structure which affects the lives of Appalachian people.”

One of the programs at SALS is Educational Training.  Youth build is one of the Educational programs that, “Works to meet the community’s need for education, job training, and affordable quality housing.  Participants must be 17-24 years old and high school dropouts.”  West Virginia leads the country in high school drop out rates.  Mississippi might have edged them out. West Virginians like to say, “Thank God for Mississippi,” when it comes to statistics on all things considered bad. The youth are required to prepare for the GED in the classroom to help meet educational goals.  On the job site they get training in construction.  They learn work skills as well as time management, leadership skills and self esteem.  I was on the job site today.

Community Center and Home Base this week

8:30

Donning my jeans, sweatshirt and my Ice Dogs hat, I climbed into the van.  I had my sack lunch in hand filled with a peanut butter sandwich, chips and an apple.  John had come to pick us up for our first day on the job site.  We first went to Oak Hill where SALS bought an old school to renovate and eventually rent out as office space to generate some revenue down the road.  It is basically in the stage of gut and clean.  Artie arrived with a van full of boys who climbed out, swearing like sailors and chaining smoking the minute they stepped out of the van.  One of them came over to our van, stuck his head in and said, “Welcome to operation Hell!”  We didn’t stay in Hell for long, they decided to take us to another town, Mount Hope, to help with the renovation of a home for a 91 year old man.

9:00ish

We arrived at Mount Hope and met Jim, the foreman and John and Brian two of the Youth Build boys.  The boys were very quiet and shy in the beginning.  We were told no pictures the first two days and that it would take them a while to warm to us.  They took us through the house to show us the different jobs.  Jim pointed at me and said, “Come with me.”  I followed and the next thing I knew, I was taking measurements, carrying trim and best of all, using the miter saw.  Yes, really using it.  Jim said, “You got this,” then he went over to the rail and lit up a cigarette.  I LOVED THE POWER!!!  The good news is, I only cut one board too short.  After cutting, I was shown how to shim up the trim and use the nail gun.  Once again, liking the power.  Once all the trim was nailed into place we had to caulk it and then paint all the trim around the room.  At this point, it was team Ned and Holly shortly thereafter joined by Chris Jr. and Gwen.  This was all done before lunch.

12:00ish

Lunch.  I stayed at the house with Gwen and Ned while the Chris’ and Rebecca walked to a little pizza joint down the hill.  The day was nice, slightly overcast but not real hot so we sat outside enjoying our lunch.  Ned commented that he thought Rebecca might be a ward of the state which brought contagious laughter from all of us.  I was so glad to hear it wasn’t just me!

1:00ish

Back at work.  I happened to walk upstairs to find Ned and Chris Sr. had gotten the afternoon instructions from Jim and we were to paint another entire room in the upstairs and put up the trim.  Since one is considered a professional in the area of miter saw and caulk after 5 minutes of instruction, team Holly, Ned and Chris knocked it out.  We started to get a bit punchy by mid-afternoon with the onset of bad jokes about caulking and finding studs to nail but it went by quickly.  I never got a chance to really engage with the boys working on the job.  They started to warm to me by the end of the day and even told us about the purple cow they had seen – acid maybe??  I wouldn’t be at all surprised by some of the stories I caught as I walked through the rooms and Ned was even offered good ‘ole fashioned moonshine on one of his trips out back to cut some trim.  I hope to get their stories in the next couple of days.

4:30

Out of there.  Back to Oak Hill to pick up some of the boys to take them home.  The last of the boys to be dropped off was Travis.  He was a large boy with paint all over his face.  He talked about his mother and how he wouldn’t do anything to make her mad.  When we were close to his road he said, “Hey you all, I live on Easy St.”  Sure enough, when we turned into his holler and onto his street, the road sign read “Easy Street.”  He said that when they made the road they asked his mom what she wanted the name of her road to be and she said, “I want to live on Easy St.”  He was very proud of his story.

SALS is working hard to change the lives of these youth.  They pick them up for work and make them be accountable.  They help them get an education and job skills along the way.  They are also affecting the life of the man whose house we worked on today.  The renovation has inspired him to start working on a will.  He never had one before because he never felt like he had anything worth leaving to anyone.  They are changing lives and having a positive influence on lives young and old.

Some things I learned today.  SALS is positively affecting lives young and old.  They are respected and known throughout the communities that they serve.  These youth have been given a second chance and moonshine is still readily available in West Virginia.