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Hometown heroes hold up social safety net in rural Kentucky

Red Bird Mission (Emily Miller)

This is part of a series of stories from the field for the “Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage” project, and a version of this article was previously published by the American Communities Project

By Emily Miller

MANCHESTER, Ky. — Barreling up a hill on a dusty, dirt road, the gravel crunches and a rainbow of green flanks the narrow roads. It is a muggy Monday mid-afternoon just outside Manchester. I am in a van stacked with freshly cooked and packaged meals for seniors. The lead volunteer informs me that he is the only one comfortable driving the van on this route — one filled with steep turns up narrow hollers, washed out embankments, and a lack of cell service. At each stop, my companion tells me if I should knock or ring, who will meet me at the door, how long I should wait, and if there are dogs. At our first stop, the client welcomes us warmly. We make a delivery. Twenty-four more houses to go.

Earlier that summer morning, I helped chop, pack, and clean at Clay County Old Timers, a senior services center. There were only three other volunteers who helped prepare nearly 200 meals. Always looking for ways to stretch a dollar, Carmen Lewis, the longstanding director, and her staff cook meals fresh and often barter with the food pantry. She along with her staff and volunteers are one of many dedicated superhero service provider teams scattered throughout Clay County and other rural areas across the United States.

Providing social services in Clay County truly seems like a task for a hero when you consider the challenges related to inadequate funding, limited staffing, and the time and expense of delivering resources to people spread across the county’s mountainous 470 square miles. Jobs that pay more than minimum wage are hard to come by, and 38.6% of the county’s approximately 20,000 residents live in poverty. Volunteers and faith-based organization step up to work alongside state departments to fill the holes in the social safety net.

Help with basic necessities

Up in the far northeast of the county, nestled deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest and surrounded by steep hills, lies Red Bird Mission. Red Bird Mission was founded in 1921 and was one of the only health providers in the area. Today, they have ministries in almost everything: children and youth, parenting, clothes, food, farming, and health. Tracy Nolan, the director of Community Outreach, told me that Red Bird tries to fill in gaps in health and service provision that other community players – like Daniel Boone Community Action Agency or the Health Department – have not been able to address.

Clean water is a prime example. While water may typically be the government’s purview, in some rural areas, it is the property owner’s responsibility to get a water line to a remote part of the county. This is an exorbitant expense for families. To remedy this, in 2015, Red Bird Mission spearheaded a collaboration between the University of Tennessee, emergency services, and construction companies to get a source of clean water to the community.

Windshield time takes a toll

Transportation is a challenge for many of these superheroes as well as for their clients. Church groups around the country sent in millions of Campbell soup labels and Red Bird was able to purchase a fleet of vans through Campbell’s Labels for Education Program. However, the program was discontinued in 2016 leaving Red Bird with uncertainty. They are working hard to maintain the vans they have, but they do not  know where future ones will come from. 

Pastor Ken Bolin uses his personal vehicle to drive people in need to doctor’s visits, drug court appointments, funerals, and home. Jerry Rice, another pastor, drove a large church van up holler roads to take kids to Little League for 24 years. Getting a vehicle is just the first step to providing services — next up is having the time. My run to deliver food to 25 seniors took nearly 3 hours of driving, covering many miles of windy roads to places scattered throughout the county. I was on the short route. “Windshield time,” or time spent behind a wheel, takes a toll. People delivering hospice care or completing home visits to support new and expectant parents through the Kentucky HANDS program can spend five hours a day driving.

Limited capacity for long-term planning

Christie Green, the director of the Cumberland Valley Health Department, tells us she would love to apply for grants for staff support, but she just doesn’t have the capacity — both in terms of staff to write the grant or reporting requirements. Green spends a lot of her time with the boots on the ground in addition to her management roles. In fact, in order to get drug users to participate in their needle exchange, Green and staff went directly to drug dealers to ask where and when they would use a needle exchange. 

When asked what they would change or what makes day-to-day life frustrating with their work, lack of funds and overworked staff, were common answers.

“I have all these big things going on and then little stuff kind of trips us up,” Green said. “We can’t be quickly responsive to things because we don’t have any discretionary funds to quickly move in one direction or another. And that’s pretty frustrating.”

There are so many daily to-dos that big picture planning — like getting grants and creating a vision — are perpetually on the back burner. This sentiment is echoed by many of the service providers in the area.  Based on what we heard, these organizations need more funding for staff, investments in human capital and training programs for staff, and follow-up with accountability measures and next steps. Funding for durable goods like vehicles or even printers, and not just programs the public likes, would free up valuable discretionary money for cash-strapped organizations. 

Fall out from declining coal industry

The experiences of local service providers are not just anecdotal. Local money to fund social services has been eroding. Property tax revenue, once abundant in Clay County due in part to higher-paying coal jobs, has dried up. Property tax revenue has shrunk to one-fourth of what it used to be 15 or so years ago, and according to County Executive Judge Johnny Johnson, the coal service tax that used to generate nearly half a million dollars now brings in a little more than $30,000.

No other industry has come in to replace the jobs loss. The working-age population has been thinning while the older population has been increasing. Residents 65 and older compose 15% of the county’s population, and 22% of residents are under 18. Students who go on to college often cannot find a well-paying job back home. Clay County’s unemployment rate is 8.5%. However, community leaders say many residents have stopped looking for work, so this official number is misleadingly low.

To keep services afloat, city and county officials make difficult trade-offs while funding continues to be slashed at the state and federal level. At the same time, government funding has a complicated history in Clay County. A general feeling among community leaders is that despite billions of dollars in federal spending on the well-intentioned War on Poverty, there has been little progress in curtailing poverty in the past 55 years. The biggest and most often cited barrier to reducing poverty is the lack of jobs that pay a sustainable wage.

‘It always works out’

Entire systems of service provision in Clay County are run by dedicated leaders and volunteers who deeply care about their community. But, being stretched thin takes its toll and leaves questions about long-term sustainability. What happens if someone retires or gets sick? Succession planning is one of the many tasks community leaders think about but indefinitely put off.

In the meantime, community leaders — some natives and some transplants — keep on helping. These leaders share some common characteristics: they are creative problem solvers, passionate about their work, and humble about their successes. It is doubtful any of them would refer to themselves as a hero. Many believe God will provide a way to continue their work. That keeps them coming back, cheerful and ready to serve. 

“If you are doing the right thing, usually God works it out,” said Lewis, director of the senior services center. “It’s just like Jesus and the fish. It’s like, ‘Huh? That’s impossible for that to have worked.’ But it happens all the time, and that’s the way we feel. You know, you try to do the right thing and do extra for people and just be good to people, and it always works out.”

Emily Miller is a second-year Ph.D. student in population studies and is pursuing a joint degree in social policy at Princeton University. Her research interests include how service providers function in rural areas and how to foster collaboration across sectors. She also is curious about how demographic characteristics and family expenses vary across rural, suburban and urban areas. This past summer, she was embedded in Clay County, Kentucky. Her undergraduate degree is in policy analysis and management from Cornell University, and she worked for two years at Child Trends before coming to Princeton and this project. 

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