The MCLA Alternative Spring Break (ASB) 2012 group spent spring break volunteering at The David School and providing first-hand, first- response tornado relief to families living in the heart of Appalachia, Eastern Kentucky. Six students and one staff member participated on the trip, and comment that the experience was incredibly interesting, incredibly educational, incredibly eye-opening and left a deep and profound impact on all the participants.
The David School
The David School has 29 high school students and is located in David, Kentucky, a rural village in the Appalachian Mountains, an area also devastated by recent tornado activity. The school is a non-denominational private high school with a mission to serve underprivileged and struggling students by providing a comprehensive education program for at risk youths who have limited financial resources. In order to be accepted at this school, the student and a guardian have to first meet with the principal.
At this time, the student is explicitly told that this is a “work school.” “Work school” means you are assigned a chore and you must help out at the school. Tasks vary but they may include cooking, prepping meals, cleaning, mowing the lawn or any other chore that needs to be done. In addition to this requirement, there is also a rule setting forth a zero tolerance policy for drugs on campus. Since the federal government does not fund The David School, they also require a fee of$30 per month from each student’s family. If the student and family agree, the student is immediately enrolled.
It was started in the 1970s by Danny Greene, who is originally from New York City, who had come to David, Kentucky, as a college sophomore and was moved by the rampant poverty and illiteracy there. The school relies on donations and volunteers for every aspect of its operations. For more than 35 years, The David School has been changing the lives of Appalachian youth for the better. Danny shared inspirational stories and struggles he and others faced against the coal industry in order to open the school- much was learned from Danny around pursuing one’s dreams.
The ASB group was shocked and overwhelmed by the extreme poverty that exists in this part of America. Floyd County, were The David School is located and the group stayed, has a small population of about 43,000 residents. The median household income is $21,000 and about 30 percent of its population lives under the poverty line. A key reason behind this poverty has to do with the long history of coal mining being the largest industry in the area. Right now, coal mining operations in Kentucky have been declining due to fewer federal mining permits, giving way to large unemployment and dependency on welfare and other assistance. This lack of self-sufficiency was the result of big coal companies moving out in the 1960’s and left the towns they had built, such as the small town of David, with no resources or support to be self-sufficient. On top of the socioeconomic issues the coal companies leave behind, they also create massive environmental problems, such as water and forest degradation. The group reports seeing “red” colored streams, which one MCLA student says she remembered learning in class is a result of coal processing pollutants.
This type of poverty is widespread across Appalachia. Many of The David School students left their towns’ public school systems to escape the drug abuse, violence, and crime that is common among young people in the area. Kentucky faces a statewide battle against drugs, specifically with prescription pills, making it the third most “medicated” state in the nation. Unfortunately, many of the David School students’ have parents with substance abuse problems and are being raised by single mothers or fathers, grandparents, and other family members. Lack of access to quality education means that many students “fall through the cracks” of the system. Most have literacy rates lower than the nationwide average. It is common for families to remain in a town or a single “holler” for generations, and as a result, children lack motivation to look for outside opportunities. Students at The David School are given a second chance to make it through their education without the distraction of substance abuse and with positive motivation from dedicated volunteer teachers. The ASB students observed and experienced this poverty through their work with the David School students and interacting with the tornado victims.
Mentoring and Tutoring
MCLA students put their mentoring and tutoring skills to work when they shadowed David School students throughout the class day. The MCLA volunteers saw what subjects’ students struggled with and how students treated their teachers. Many of these students chose to come to a work while your learn school because of the overwhelming drug problems at their last school. To attend the David School students had to sign contracts that they would stay drug free and would be willing to clean the school or prep for meals as part of their education process. Since the school is not funded by the state or federal government, the school can be flexible with their teaching schedules. A number of students MCLA worked with at David will be first generation high school graduates, meaning that the push toward educational success at home may be low. The only standardization these students face is prep for the ACTs. The goal of the David School is for these students to earn their high school diploma; going to college is strongly encouraged but in no way the absolute expectation.
The MCLA students say teaching at David School can be daunting. The David School staff express that these young adults challenge them every day and in every way. The class is arranged by different skill and ability levels at different tables, unlike the traditional desk set up. Everyone learned at a different pace and this set up allows different skill levels to be in the same class. The faculty also serves as the staff of the school, and they and various volunteer groups, provide a unique learning environment for all the students. The number of staff is limited. Whether it is because of money, funding, location or the unique challenge of working with these students, the school struggles to keep enough staff to teach what classes they think is necessary for these children to graduate. The staff is like family and all shared that they are there because they believe in these youth, and are motivated by the ideals and values of wanting to make a positive difference in the lives of these young people, and society as a whole.
The experiences at The David School have left a lasting impacton the MCLA students. Despite the hardship these youth face on a daily basis, they have each made a pivotal life choice to enroll in The David School, whether they knew it at the time or not. Although not all students that enroll in The David School successfully complete the high school program, many come back in one way or another. Former students have brought their children in hopes of having them enroll in the school. A few former students have even told Danny Greene that they always had the school in their thoughts and it has made them want to aspire for something more in life. It was inspiring for the MCLA students to witness how much of an impact The David School has had on its students and their overall success.
The group learned much about tornados, and witnessed first-hand its wrath. Weather conditions were perfect for tornados on that historic Friday. There were forty-five different tornados that touched down that day. Many of the tornados were able to stay on the ground for many miles. In West Liberty, Kentucky the twister that leveled the town was on the ground for ninety-five miles with winds of 140mph. In Salyersville, Kentucky near the David School and where we did our relief work, the twister had winds of 160mph and stayed on the ground for forty- nine miles.
While the numbers are terrifying, the sights were puzzling. Homes, businesses, and churches would be flattened on one side of the road while whole housing developments would be untouched on the other. Tornados have a tendency to hop around and are never predictable- while anything and everything in its track would be destroyed and ripped apart, there was often one structure completely untouched without a scratch and with no damage at all. The impact of the tornados is on a massive scale- the like none of in the group had ever seen- deeply impacting and changing all facets of life as usual. While at the David School the group was saddened to hear of a prior student of who perished during the tornado.
Through the coordination of “Brother Eddy” at the local Burning Fork Baptist Church, the ASB group worked hand in hand with other college students from around the country on the front lines doing tornado relief. Over the course of five days students made care packages, helped run distribution centers and cleaned up the unbelievable amount of wreckage from the twister. Separating metal from wood and hazardous trash, student s helped homeowners clean up what was left of their homes and trailers. Family photos and irreplaceable items were a common sight, scattered up to a mile away from where a home once stood. Students traveled to multiple “hollers” or neighborhoods to do this work, and had the opportunity to work side by side with homeowners and directly hear their stories and concerns.
Physical service wasn’t the only thing MCLA students brought with them to rural eastern Kentucky. Thanks to the college community, the students were able to bring down two duffle bags loaded to the brim with relief supplies such as toothpaste and feminine products as well as $600 in gift cards. In a last minute fundraising effort, the family of Korinna Dennehey was able to raise an astounding $650 more to donate to both the victims of the tornados and the David school itself. As important the tornado relief clean up was and the donated supplies, the MCLA group feel they were also played an important emotional role for these victims by being caring, sympathetic and a shoulder for these victims to cry on.
Cultural Enrichment and Excursions
The ASB group also had the opportunity to explore and engage in some Cultural Enrichment and Excursions. Loretta Lynn’s birthplace was only a half hour drive away from the David School and the group had many die-hard country music fans that had to stand where the famous singer once stood. They report that traveling through the backwoods of Kentucky was an adventure in itself; Loretta Lynn really did live in the middle of nowhere. In order to visit her house they had to call ahead to the local General Store and make sure her brother could find someone to watch the store while he took us around the house. While waiting to go on the tour the group were able to chat with Loretta Lynn’s brother and two nieces, and heard amazing stories about the area and history of the town.
While wandering around Loretta Lynn’s house the group was able to see how “backwoods” and small town this young girl really was. Her brother painted a picture of how the area looked way back when; before the roads, electricity, and people. Before the road was built up to the hollow, people had to drive their cars up through the river, a bumpy ride.
The group also explored downtown Lexington, which has many interesting art, restaurants and retail shops a wonderful fountain and park in the middle of downtown where many locals and tourists can enjoy some time in the sunshine.
Keeneland race track was the last stop on the way to the airport to go home. The contrast from the backwoods where the group had been in for the week with the grandeur of the race track was interesting to compare.
MCLA’s Alternative Spring Break trips are coordinated out of
The Center for Service and Citizenship Office, by Spencer Moser.