From the moment you cross the state line, you see and feel the difference.
As we drive from Virginia into McDowell County, West Virginia, the sun is rising and the early morning frost glistens on the far hills across the valley. There is a bracing crispness in the air and the abundant rivers and streams we pass offer up soothing sounds of rushing waters.
Even in the dead of winter, the thousands of acres of leafless trees create a serenity and beauty found in few places.
But further into the county, toward our destination of the town of War, it becomes clear that this lush topography is hiding an underbelly of unbelievable poverty. The county line seems to have served as an invisible wall between rich and poor, between hope and despair. Suddenly, the houses sport tarped roofs and broken windows, the yards become cluttered with abandoned cars on blocks, and children, covered in coal dust, play amid the stagnant debris. Every mile traveled reveals more decay: buildings burned to the ground due to unsafe coal stoves, trailers rotting in high grass, sheds collapsed in heaps of wooded rubble.
Passing through Big Creek, small grocery stores occupying old, unpainted houses sport advertisements for chewing tobacco on their sides. Further down, churches of every type and denomination compete with homes for space along the road. Some have the traditional edifices with steeples; others are in dirty broken down buildings with hand painted signs on the walls inviting people to find salvation. The oft-told local joke, we later discover, is that there is a church for every five people in the area. It appears less a punchline and more a reality. In the middle of it all, an old garage, fighting for attention like a tawdry sinner, has been turned into a bluegrass music bar. On weekend nights, residents happily 'flat foot' dance the night away.
As we turn off the main road and drive up into the hallows on one lane - sometimes even dirt - roads toward the hills, the poverty becomes even more pronounced. At times you wonder if you have somehow landed in a Third World country. Even for the seasoned, to see such sights in America is hard to comprehend. It is as though you have come across a lost tribe of people that has been totally forgotten by their country.
Yet, amid this misery and hopelessness, one finds remarkable kindness. Folks here believe helping a neighbor in need is nothing special - indeed, it is a way of life. Even the poor help the poorer. And by embracing the age-old virtue of loving thy fellow man, many of these tenacious residents find redemption for themselves. The amazing Marsha Timpson is one of those people.
We are to meet Marsha at The War Café - one of only two places to eat in this small hamlet of less than 800 people. War, West Virginia is a shadow of its former self from the days when "King Coal" ruled the area. Back then, it was a bustling, thriving city of thousands with movie theaters, restaurants, car dealers, department stores and a vibrant business center. Driving up the main drag today, the theaters are gone, the dining is limited, the dealerships are closed, the department stores are boarded, and the last grocery store was in the process of closing that weekend. The street is filled with pot holes and a grimy film of coal dust covers most everything.
The War Café occupies a little storefront near the center of what remains of the town. As we enter, we are greeted by an elderly diminutive ball of fire with big hair and non-stop charisma named Dottie. She leads us past the stools and counter in the front section to the side room where we find our select group of McDowell County citizens sitting at the large table. Franki Rutherford, small, bespectacled and powerful in presence who is the head of the Carlotta Community Center - the organization we have heard so much about - is first to stand. As she embraces us, we mention how beautiful the hills are surrounding the town. Franki smiles at the compliment. "These hills with the trees, well, it's hard to explain," she says. "They enrich my soul everyday." Danny Mitchell, the County Sheriff, gets up and strongly shakes our hands. He is young, handsome and perfectly and expensively dressed. Joining in the greetings is the graying and heavy-set Mayor, __________, a retired college professor. Then, finally, we meet Marsha Timpson.
Marsha Timpson is 52 years old but looks at least ten years younger. A somewhat round woman - she prefers to call herself 'fluffy' - she has the face of an angel and a smile that never seems to disappear. Her laugh disarms immediately as she gives a huge welcoming bear hug and the first hint of her charming heavy hill accent. She is the classic universal 'earth mother' and at first, there is no hint of the painful and traumatic journey that created such a spirit. Wearing one of her best lose fitting print dresses that highlights her pale but beautiful skin, she urges us to sit down. Immediately we begin to hear a collective home-spun précis of the struggle against poverty in the remote region.
The Mayor is proud of expanding one of the few sewer lines in town, while the Sheriff discusses the battle against massive drug addiction to Oxycontin in the hills. Franki speaks of the programs at the Center where Marsha works for her. All profess an unshakable hope and belief that if people on the outside just cared a little bit more, lives could be changed for the better in War. Franki, perhaps, says it best: "I think not only do people outside this community not care about us, but they want us to disappear." Then she thinks for a moment. "It's not that they just don't care," she continues, clarifying, "if they didn't care, we could probably deal with that. But we are in folks' way."
As we sit listening to the tales, we can not help but notice the calendar on the wall of the café. At first it seems the classic picture calendar put out by local businesses. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this particular yellowed page has not been turned in over forty years. The month reads November, the year 1963, and your eye immediately settles on the historic, fateful day -- the 22nd. When the date is pointed out, the table begins talking about the Kennedys in reverential tones, the older ones telling in vivid detail how President Kennedy had once visited the area. Franki reminisces, "They gave us hope linked with the ability to change things. The Kennedys really affected this community, I mean they cared. They were young and energetic and they truly cared about the people. And they had ways to make things better for us." It was clear that, for them, a great measure of that hope had died along with the young assassinated President.
Bidding goodbye to the group at the café, we follow Marsha's car up into Warrior Mines Hallow. The road runs alongside a winding creek past dozens of small bungalows that used to serve as company housing for the coal companies. A palpable haze caused by a combination of the cold winter air and soot from the coal burning stoves hangs low throughout the hallow. Many of the occupants, we knew, only owned the home itself; six inches below the surface was all owned by the coal or railroad companies. Rarely did anyone own the land beneath their own home.
As the road banks, we suddenly turn down into a cinder driveway and park in the yard. We walk up to a small cement back porch filled with pots waiting for Spring so flowers can be planted in them. Once inside the small wood-framed house, it is clear Marsha has lovingly created a real home. It is a house redolent with history and pictures of family, especially her three children - Brandi (29), Kathy (19) and her son Tyler (15) - cover the walls. Bursting with motherly pride, she begins by sharing a quick synopsis of the journeys of each of her children. The girls are no longer in residence, but Tyler, a poised young man, still lives at home. The youngest Timpson has Aspersers Symptom and an obsessive compulsive disorder that, regrettably, has made him a frequent target of bullies at Big Creek High. Challenges, it seem, presented themselves everywhere in Marsha's life. Undaunted and clearly determined, this remarkable, resilient woman sits with us in her living room and begins a full recounting of her personal path.
Marsha grew up in Warrior Mines, her family living in the same home for over 75 years. Her parents raised six children there - four daughters and two brothers - and coal is deeply ingrained into the family history. Her grandfather, father and brothers were all United Mine Workers. Grandfather Farley had the walls of the mine cave-in on him, leaving his leg disabled for life. A brother survived two separate cave-ins, but had to have surgery on his back; he also lost the ends of some of his fingers. Tradition taught them to honor the work ethic, brutal though it may be, and to find their spiritual solace in being active Freewill Baptists.
From the very beginning, Marsha faced an uphill battle. Although better off than most due to a father who held a long-paying job in the coal mines, the family found it a constant struggle to make ends meet. While it was ingrained in the children that education would be the only passage out, the expense was prohibitive. They would often discuss which of the six would attempt to go to college. Marsha vividly remembers, "It was just - every family had to do it - we would try to think of the best one to go because most them figured only one child could go to college. The boys were taken care of - they were going to be coal miners. It was from the girls that the one would come from. And Dad would look at me and he'd say, "you try to get married as soon as you can!" She throws her head back in laughter with the recollection.
But being the good girl that she was, that is exactly what Marsha did. When she was 17, she met 22 year-old Freddy Wright from Cucumber Hallow. A welder by trade, Freddy, like most everyone else in rural West Virginia, worked in the mines. He was handsome, short, and had a head of dark wavy hair that offset his vivid blue eyes. Marsha's family loved his good manners and very consistent respect for his elders. But Freddy was a bit of a rebel, having been one of the few boys who had lived on the 'outside' of the valley and then returned. That made Freddy mysterious and adventurous to Marsha and she loved that 'wild side' of him. He always wore a mischievous smile which Marsha confesses, "Drove me crazy."
Their first home was a 10'x 40' trailer in Coal Creek, South Carolina where they moved right after they married. They stayed in South Carolina until 1973 when they returned to his family homestead in Cucumber Hallow - a tiny hodgepodge of a house that had been built in spurts. In the kitchen, one end was four feet high and the other end was seven feet high. The refrigerator blocked the only window. The ringer washer was outdoors and wet clothes had to be put through the hand ringer and back again before hanging out to dry. "We never fixed it up or attempted to repair the roof or sides much," Marsha explains, "because even though Freddy was born into this house, the coal companies could always evict you for the land underneath. Which is what they eventually did."
Freddy had a problem with alcohol, which, given his family history, was not surprising. He was one of 23 children and to make ends meet, his coal mining father made moonshine on the side. At the age of nine, Freddy starting drinking the home made brew. Six months into the marriage, Freddy began to verbally and physically abuse his wife when he was drunk. As the drinking increased, so did the abuse. Not only was Marsha emotionally battered, but the physical damage led to a dislocated knee and even a miscarriage.
Their daughter, Brandi, was the one bright spot in their marriage. But before long, even she was not immune to Freddy's darkening mood swings. One particularly hot summer night in August, Freddy went on an especially long drinking binge. Marsha and he were in constant battles not only about his drinking, but their living conditions which continued to deteriorate as his alcoholism got worse. That sweltering night, Marsha once again adamantly refused to give him money for more liquor. Livid, he erupted. In the middle of the rage, seven year-old Brandi accidentally spilled a glass of ice tea in the living room. The innocent mishap was a like a match to leaking gas.
For the first time, Freddy turned on his daughter and started chasing a screaming and frightened Brandi around the house. Marsha grabbed the child, rushed her into a small bedroom and pushed a chest of drawers against the door as a makeshift barricade. Freddy, now completely out of control, ran to grab an axe and started chopping through the door. Marsha quickly removed a fan from a window and pushed Brandi out into the yard, following her in a free-fall to the ground below. Ever the quick thinker, she put the fan back in the window, hoping that her crazed husband would figure they had hid somewhere in the room. That, perhaps, would give her more time to hide Brandi and herself outdoors.
Desperate, they ran to a plastic swimming pool raised about three feet off the ground and climbed in the water, stretching a moldy canvas tarp over themselves. Huddled terrified in the stagnant water, they listened as Freddy's continued screaming and incessant chopping in the house echoed throughout the neighborhood. The noise eventually died down and then mother and daughter heard the family truck start up. When she was certain her husband had gone - undoubtedly in search of more liquor - Marsha cautiously led her daughter from the sanctuary of the pool. Back inside the house, she got dry clothes for both of them. Before they could even breathe, they heard the truck approaching the house. Marsha ushered her newly dried daughter out to the yard, where, this time, they hid in an old, rusted truck on cinder blocks behind the house. After what seemed like hours, Marsha crept back into the house to find her inebriated husband passed out on the floor. Grabbing the truck keys, she sprinted to the yard, collected a whimpering Brandi and fled to her sister's home.
Marsha stayed with her sister for two days and then, afraid of being an unnecessary burden, went to visit her friends Linda and Jessie Leak. Jessie, a stocky built man with wild mane of blond curls and a shaggy beard, had fallen on hard times. Along with his wife Linda, a beautiful blue-eyed blond, the Leaks were having trouble maintaining a comfortable home with their young children Ginny and Mandy.
Sensing their discontent, Marsha begged them to leave the valley to go the 'Blue Collar Riviera', Myrtle Beach. For Marsha, it seemed the only way out. But she couldn't imagine making such a dramatic move on her own. She needed her friends' support; she needed them to go with her. Knowing they had not much left to lose, Marsha convinced them that an escape to South Carolina would benefit them all.
Marsha borrowed $250 from her sister, gathered what she could from the house while her husband was out, piled the six of them into the front of the old blue 1970s Chevy pickup and headed out of the valley into an unknown future. Looking like a scene straight from the "Grapes of Wrath", they arrived in Myrtle Beach looking for hope, searching for salvation. But for these sheltered, small-town people, the teeming ocean city was a little overwhelming. Instead of settling, they traveled a bit further south, to Pawley Island - a burg known for making hammocks and supplying workers to the mills in nearby Georgetown.
The first few days were daunting. Since they barely had enough money for food, let alone lodging, the six slept in the Chevy truck. Marsha, who had worked as a waitress, would go out in the daytime to seek work so they could finally procure housing. The major obstacle, they found, was security deposits. "Down there, the electric deposit was like $300," Marsha says, wide-eyed. "See, if you could just move into a place and just start paying the monthly bill, that's not a problem. But you have to pay a big deposit to the water company. You have to pay a deposit to the electric company. So you've got to have saved the money to pay the deposits first and feed everyone and have money for gas. It was tough. Very tough." She shakes her head with the memory. "We weren't sure we were going to make it and I felt responsible for Linda and Jessie and their kids because I convinced them to come with me."
Finally, she found a sympathetic landlord on Pawley Island who allowed them to move into an old, dilapidated house. Abandoned, peeling layers of paint, the structure had not been lived in for quite some time. The yard was severely overgrown with high grass and weeds; vines hung from the trees. It had only two bedrooms for the six of them and a very small kitchen. And because they had used up all their money to get into the house, there was none left for furniture or utilities. Bare, gas and electricity-free, it nonetheless provided their first real shelter.
Like true survivalists, they built a little stove outdoors by taking lose bricks and creating enclosed fire area. On top of the bricks they placed old metal milk cartons to serve as the range. Each evening they would go into the nearby woods to collect firewood; sometimes they would bring driftwood from the beach. On top of the crate, they would place their pot to cook the evening meal which was usually, according to Marsha, "Lots and lots of different kinds of stew made from wherever we could find leftovers." Following the meal, there would, of course, be a clean-up. "There was this little old black man that lived beside us and he claimed to be 101 and I won't dispute him!" Marsha recalls. "And he was so sweet and took pity on us. He took us back in the woods to where he had a hand pump. And he told us we could that to wash our dishes and get our basic water needs met. We had to carry water to flush the commode and we would bathe under the thing (the pump) at night. Then we would go to sleep on the hard floors in the house."
Marsha eventually found a job in the Litchfield Diner which was basically a trailer with a room built out of the front with floor-to-ceiling windows. She quickly became the main and sometimes only provider for all six people, sometimes working over 18 hours a day. "And then in a couple weeks," she says, "I got another job. A couple weeks later, I got a third job. So I would go to work at six in the morning and work at the diner until three, and I took Brandi with me. She would sleep in the kitchen. They had a little pad for her on the floor under the counter. And she'd come out and eat breakfast and catch a bus right in front of the diner." After school, her daughter would meet her back at the diner. "So then we drove to Georgetown, and I worked at a bakery/service station from 4:00 until 7:00. And then we drove back to the island, and I left her with the Leaks and I went and cleaned offices at night until around midnight."
Marsha admits she was "terrified, just terrified" on a daily basis facing one obstacle after another. She was afraid of even the most minor aliments because they had no health insurance and could never go to the hospital because they weren't residents. She remembers one time when they all were sleeping on the floor and, as a treat, the children were given cookies before bedtime. By morning, all of them were covered with little red blisters. At first, Marsha feared it was diphtheria. Finally summoning the courage to ask another waitress what to do, she was told they were probably bites from red ants searching for cookie crumbs. "That ended the practice of a cookie before bedtime!" Marsha chuckles.
The group also soon discovered that the sense of community that they all had carried with them from the mountains - neighbor helping neighbor - was alive and well in other parts of America, too. Because the house they rented had been empty for so long, the grass surrounding it was nearly above their heads. "All we had was a little path through it back to where the pump was." Taking matters into her own hands, Marsha, wielding a blunt kitchen knife, started, bit by bit, to cut little paths through the grass to make it easier for everyone to get around. But not only was the make-do landscaping back-breaking, her efforts yielded little progress. Then, one Saturday morning about two weeks after they arrived, "We heard the awfullest racket! I thought, my gosh, what's going on? We got up, ran out, and there must have been 20 black people in my yard of all ages and they were cutting our grass! They brought lawn mowers!" Terribly moved by the gesture, and wanting to return the kindness, "We went up and bought hot dogs. After we got the grass cut, we built a fire out in the yard and we had a hot dog cookout." Marsha smiles broadly, hand to her heart. "It was great, just great."
Eventually, the two families were making enough money to go their separate ways. The Leaks stayed in the house in Pawley Island and Marsha and Brandi moved to a less than 400 square foot tan and white trailer nearby. It was cramped for the two of them, but not nearly as crowded as when Jessie, Linda and their girls, unable to sustain themselves, were forced to move in with them. Marsha and Brandi slept in the bedroom; the other four on the pull-out sofa in the small living room. The claustrophobic quarters proved too much for Marsha, who moved once again with Brandi, this time to a small house in near-by Georgetown. It was to be just another of the eventual 42 times in her life that Marsha moved into new living space.
After several years in South Carolina, Marsha's moribund personal life took a decided turn when John Timpson, who was doing construction work in the area, walked into the Litchfield Diner. John was 6'1" and very slender with dark thinning hair and a hawk bill nose. His sense of humor made Marsha laugh all the time. The two of them flirted for awhile and then one day when Marsha was in trouble, John was there to help her and they eventually married. Marsha gave birth to her second daughter and named her Kathy.
Because John had to go wherever the construction work took him, the Timpsons were constantly on the road. Marsha and her two children found themselves left alone in strange Southern towns while John put in long hours on a job site. Most of the places, to varying degrees, were bearable, until they landed in Dawson, Georgia. There, Marsha befriended an African-American woman in the sewing factory where they both were working and invited her home one day for lunch. As soon as her black friend left following the meal, the phone began to ring. "All this time I had lived there, none of my neighbors had spoke or called or anything. And now they wanted to know what that..." she lowers her voice, "...well, they didn't say 'black woman' ---was doing at my house. They said they hoped she was there to clean. I said, 'excuse me?' And so they repeated it. And I said she was a guest in my home for dinner. They said if you want to have friends here, you don't do that." Marsha's face reddens with anger at the memory. "I said, 'I don't want you for a friend and I will invite whoever I want to my house!' I said, 'And you don't have to worry about it because you won't ever be invited to my house!"
This was one of the first times in her life that Marsha had really encountered racial prejudice and it sent her spinning. Later, when she recounted the episode to her father and inquired why there wasn't more prejudice in McDowell County he told her, "Marsha, in a coal camp, you have everybody. It's a melting pot. When you go down in those mines, you have an Italian, a German, a black. It don't matter what color you are when you go down there, you're all coming out black!" Her father thought a minute, then continued. "It's just like when I was in World War II. That man beside you is responsible for your life; you're looking out for each other. I'm looking out for his life, and he's looking out for my life. And you form a very special bond. They're like almost as close to you as your brother. So why would I come out of that mine the next day and teach my children to hate his children?" The father's explanation rang true with the daughter as well.
When Marsha gave birth to Tyler, things took a turn for the worse in the Timpton marriage. John could not handle having a son with a disability and soon become physically abusive to Marsha and verbally abusive to Tyler. While living in Murphy, North Carolina, a despondent Marsha finally had enough and sought refuge in a battered women's shelter housed in an old Victorian house. It was there, hearing the stories of women and their children experiencing the same plight, that Marsha first experienced the healing power of a communal center.
Still, an overwhelming sense of shame nearly paralyzed her. "I felt like such a failure." Trying to see past the self-recriminations, she went on a rollercoaster accounting of her life. "How am I going to start over again? I am getting old. I am not a slow person or anything. I'm tough and stuff but I am not well educated. And I'm a hard worker. I will give any job I do well above and beyond what it calls for. But I have to do that, see, to make up for other things." What she really yearned to do was go back home to the mountains and feel safe and secure; yet doing so might demonstrate that she had become a disappointment not only to herself, but also to her family.
Upon hearing her dilemma, Marsha's family only wanted one thing and that was her safely home. They came immediately to North Carolina. To assure protection from her violent husband, the shelter arranged a police escort for Marsha and her children to a McDonald's parking lot where they were greeted in an emotionally-charged reunion with her family. She returned to West Virginia with just $700 in her pocket which was slightly more than the $250 that she originally had when she left.
Marsha's homecoming, in the end, was not the humbling humiliation she had feared. Instead, it proved to be a new beginning. Feeling a huge sense of relief, she embraced her childhood home, and came to love and cherish it. And most importantly, it led her one step closer to finding her true calling under the guidance of Franki Rutherford at the Carlotta Community Center.
Energized with resolve, Marsha Timpson was determined to find decent employment. She was used to holding down three service jobs a day, but upon returning to the hills she discovered her prospects were alarmingly few. There were no restaurants to speak of in Big Creek and that left only housekeeping - a luxury few people could afford. Reduced to picking up a smattering of cleaning jobs throughout the valley, she was averaging a paltry $10 a day. Even with her indefatigable energy, Marsha was only able to eke out about $300 a month. Rent payment left her with less than $100 for everything else for her family. "We didn't have television or telephone or anything like that," she says. "I had a car but you couldn't go out of town because it wouldn't go up the hills!"
Still, she refused to give up or give in. Then, fate intervened when she secured a job cleaning the War Library. One day after the usual mopping, dusting and emptying of waste baskets, a little girl approached Marsha seeking help to find a book. Marsha not only located the book, but asked the sweet child if she would like it read to her. Tucked in a corner, surrounded by imposing stacks of tomes, the book was read in hushed tones. So successful was the storytelling, soon other children joined in the impromptu reading sessions. Intrigued, the library asked Marsha if she would mind doing it every Friday afternoon. "So I started reading to them and I loved it! The children would come and hunt for me and say, 'read to me, read to me'". The groups started small, numbering perhaps four or five kids, but word, and attendance, grew. And grew. Marsha beams, "I was in my element, like a hunting pup. I was dressing up. I was so into this thing! Well, they started busing them in from Head Start kindergarten and I would have twenty to thirty kids!"
The library readings eventually led Marsha to Americorps and the turning point of her life. Americorps was bringing The Apple Read program to the valley and they needed reading coaches for the children. When Mavis Brewster of Americorps heard of this remarkable woman who was attracting dozens of hill children to the library, she instructed her staff to enlist her. The organization was not allowed to offer paying jobs but had to encourage people like Marsha to volunteer; as an incentive they proposed a living allowance. Marsha, however, was not about to have any part of it. "Well, I had never heard of Americorps," she insists. "Volunteerism and service -- that was a language I did not speak. I worked."
Nevertheless, the organization was so impressed with her that they redoubled their efforts to recruit her. But their attempts to explain the merits of volunteerism fell on deaf ears. Marsha adamantly insisted that she had children to feed and that she couldn't even consider becoming a volunteer. The organization persisted, pointing out that Americorps was about making a difference in peoples' lives. A person like Marsha, they suggested, could change a child's life forever. Even with that bait, Marsha was not biting. "I thought it was a bunch of crap because to me, if you make a difference, you have to do something huge. You had to save, like, 100 lives or something." However, when they told her that her 'living allowance' would be $650 a month, a flabbergasted Marsha quoted the famous line from the film, Jerry Maguire, shouting, "Show me the money!" Convinced and converted, Marsha eagerly signed up, thrilled at the prospect of making more than twice what she was bringing home at the time.
But the money was the least of it. Timpson would be changed forever by Americorps.
Her initiation into the transformational power of selfless volunteerism came in the form of a small boy from the poor hills of nearby Bartley. His name was Jonathan and he had a severe speech impediment making him the target of ridicule from the other children. In retaliation, the youngster would strike back at them and always get in trouble. A loner, he walked around with his head hung low, muttering to himself. His parents were at their wits' end; even Jonathan's teachers had written him off, concluding that the troubled boy had no capacity or desire to learn. But Marsha, seeing the parallels in her own son's disabilities, was determined not to give up on him.
"Jonathan and I had been working on his spelling words," Marsha says. "He'd never passed his spelling test. So, we were doing his spelling words one day and the word was 'us'. You can't imagine somebody struggling with the 'us' but, boy, we struggled with it! But he finally got it right. I said, 'Good, Jonathan, give Mrs. Timpson a sentence with the word 'us' and I'll write it for you." As an incentive, Marsha rose, chalk in hand and walked to the blackboard, poised to write. After much agitated deliberation, the boy finally tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Ms. Timtn, let us dance." Intensely proud and moved by the breakthrough, Marsha wrote the sentence in big letters on the board, then turned to the delighted boy and pledged, "Jonathan, you make a 100 on your spelling test on Friday and, by God, we'll dance"
That Monday at home, Marsha spent the whole afternoon nervously fretting about how Jonathan had scored on his test. As a precaution, and to possibly nudge fate a bit in the boy's direction, she put her boom box in her car and, at 3:00 PM, apprehensively drove to the school. "When I pushed that door open, there stood Jonathan at the top of the steps looking at me." The boy was hopping back and forth, trying to suppress his glee. "Ms. Timtn, Ms. Timtn, I made 100!" Then he threw out his arms toward her. "Let us dance!" Tears streaming down her face, Marsha ran back out to the car, grabbed her battered boom box, commandeered an empty classroom and plugged the machine in. "By God, we danced!" she says emphatically. "Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had nothing on us, I want to tell you. We danced!"
The joyful incident still resonates with Marsha. "That's when I learned about making a difference - that you really could. And I didn't make a difference in that child's life but I made a difference in that day. And that little difference rippled over. It was amazing because when the kids would go through that door to go down to the bathroom, they saw him dancing with me, their Ms. Timps, so he became like a hero for the day. He was dancing with Ms. Timps! So, they began to look at Jonathan a little different. So it rippled over in how they saw him. And that teacher who told me that I was wasting my time on him saw that he was capable with just a little extra help. So she began to work more with him. So it rippled over into her. Heck, his momma was so excited when I went for a home visit, I thought I was going to have to dance with her because for the first time, they heard something good about Jonathan."
That June, Marsha's stint with the program at that particular school came to a close. At the end of the year school assembly, when Mr. Spencer, the principal, announced that it was her last time, every teacher, parent and student rose to give her a huge, sustained standing ovation. "You have no idea what that did for my heart," Marsha says in a hush. "I can tell you this. I never received a standing ovation for cleaning a toilet from anyone. There is nothing wrong with cleaning for people. But there is if you think that's all you can do."
As she finishes telling us her story, she wipes the tears from her eyes. "Guess I should be just glad I made it this far. I know I have had it bad but there are others a lot worse off than me. My life is easy compared to the others. My job is to make ends meet, make sure there is food on the table and then to help others. The people in these hills are my neighbors." She throws up her arms. "It is that simple, guys, it is that simple."
We are to go with Marsha to the Caretta Community Center to see where she works to transform the lives of the people in the hallows. As she gathers up her things for the drive, this social worker without portfolio looks more like an angel -- a heavenly guardian that has been sent to sow seeds of hope in the rugged hills of rural West Virginia.
Her powerful story has transformed her in our eyes. We are believers.
Riding with Marsha, we drive into War and then take River Road where living conditions are so appalling they take your breath away. The deeper you venture into the hallows, the worse the living conditions become. It is staggering to think that your fellow Americans could live like this only eight hours outside the nation's capital. The houses are falling down; people look like stricken survivors of a disaster. Perched on rotted porch fronts, they stare blankly into the open hills. Some nod as we pass. Many knew Marsha and their faces break into big smiles as they recognize her. It seems like most have been touched by her in some way. Before heading to the Center, we turn into English Hallow to visit people Marsha cared about greatly. Ms. Connie Akers and her family.
Ms. Connie's home, unfortunately, is not an exception to the squalor permeating the hills. The first thought that comes to mind was that the home and surrounding buildings have been abandoned for years -- like a Walker Evans photograph of the old shacks on the Oklahoma prairies during the height of the Depression. But instead of dust, coal culm covers everything. The yard is littered with remnants of failed attempts to improve their living conditions -- bits and pieces they hoped somehow to apply to the house to make it warmer or more secure. Windows are missing panes of glass, holes pepper the siding, a battered ruin of a front porch has collapsed into weeds.
Pulling into the drive, we can barely find a space to park that is not filled with some sort of rubble. The soothing sounds of a creek running in the back provide the only measure of relief from the overwhelming bleakness pervading the lot. Knowing we are going to need to be stoic, we make sure to rein in our emotions before entering. We intend to honor this struggling family's dignity and courage; not patronize them with misplaced pity. Kimberly and Dalton, two of eight Akers children, come running out to greet us. Covered head to toe in coal dust, no shoes in the mountain winter, they still exude a joy that only children can have in such conditions.
The two children, just in their first decade, are simply beautiful. Kimberly could easily become a model in New York with her striking young face and her brother's laughter and smile could melt the mountain snows. Little Dalton has his Hulk shirt on -- he loves to be called the next Hulk. Both appear to have some developmental and neurological disorders from their malnutrition and it is hard to tell their exact ages. Kimberly has trouble with her verbal skills and struggles to speak. Both have feet roughly calloused and cut from walking without shoes in the winter.
Dalton takes our hands to lead us into the house to meet their mother. Ms. Connie is about 5'7" tall with reddish tinted hair and very bad teeth. She was clearly a beautiful woman in her youth and you can't help but wonder what kind of dreams she must have had back then. Five of the children in the house are hers; the remaining three are step-daughters from her husband.
At one time, we are told, there were twelve people living in the two room house. The prospect seems almost impossible with floors so buckled and walls so precariously fragile that a mere breeze might easily topple the structure. The coal burning stove with its adjoining coal box takes up a great deal of the first room. Scattered about are four ancient chairs and a loveseat, all powered with the ever-present coal dust. Indeed, the black film is so pervasive that it literally covers everything and transfers like a rampant virus to anyone sitting anywhere. There is no septic tank and no sewer; everything runs into the creek behind the house.
In the corner of the cramped living room is a bed that contains Ms. Connie's mother, Ms. Fannie Rose, who, due to the crippling effects of a stroke, has been unable to stand or sit for nearly ten years. She smiles when you talk to her about the old days of the Union and is glad to have someone to tell that she lost two brothers to the mines. She hasn't had adequate healthcare in years. Hard times have turned Ms. Connie's husband into an alcoholic, one of Ms. Connie's stepdaughters has multiple sclerosis. Ms Connie herself has a fourth grade educational and little or no hope of ever finding work. Recovering from breast cancer, she recently was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The constant overwhelming pain forced her into a dependency on the opiate Oxycontin. Under the influence of the drug, she tears mercilessly at her skin; the raw marks are like a roadmap all over her wracked body. She is struggling to get off the drug, but the dealers are relentless, especially with those desperate for relief from the debilitating medical treatments.
Echoing the County Sheriff earlier in the afternoon, Marsha Timpson reiterates that Oxycontin was an especially virulent blight in the hills. "Life just got too hard. It is just an escape from their reality. I think they give up." She shakes her head sadly and sighs. "Fear is the most horrible; it ties you down more than anything else. And if you are tied down with fear, then what comes after that? Hopelessness. And you just don't want to face life. It's easier to be numb. But this thing will take your soul." She leans into us for emphasis and repeats in measured tones, "It will take your soul."
The Akers' have no health insurance, little transport and rarely see a doctor. The promise of America rings especially hollow to them. In a community of so much suffering, this household seems to be burdened with more than its fair share. They are, in truth, a classic case of how the Welfare Reform Act in the mid-nineties has devastated large numbers of people. Their five year span of support mandated by law is now expired and the prospect of a likely job is nil. They run out of food before the end of the month, desperately hoping that one of the local church food banks or the Center will have enough resources to see them through. They feel forgotten by their country and worry constantly about the future of their children in such dire circumstances. Marsha angrily calls it like it is: "If that welfare bill hadn't passed, most likely these children would be getting food and not going to bed hungry. They might even have a chance."
For families like the Akers', the only hope comes from the Caretta Community Center. Marsha describes, for instance, the successes of the student visitation program she runs at the Center. As she gives a tour of the house, she points out the tangible results of the intervention. "The students from Notre Dame helped repair this roof, the ones from Ferrun College and Washington and Lee University helped put a kitchen in the house. The College of Ozarks kids created a Christmas for the Akers family and sent books for the kids. It is the young of America that seems to still care and believe in helping your neighbor." Her eyes narrow at us. "Where are the adults? Do they care anymore?"
The Akers' are among the majority of hill people struggling beyond all reason to not give into despair. "What a family it is," Marsha once movingly wrote about the case, "Poor, neglected, illiterate and a little dirty. Also loving caring, sharing, giving and wonderful. I often wonder how these forces battle against each other but I know which is the most powerful...I can't imagine getting through one day of such a hard life let alone every day, but Connie does, and always with a smile on her face and generosity in her heart."
At the end of the afternoon visit, we get in the car shaken to the core and, in marked silence, head to the Caretta Community Center.
From its humble beginnings as a small women's outreach group, the Center began making an impact on the community. When it became clear that the organization needed a permanent home, one of the original founders, Franki Rutherford, spearheaded an effort to secure a space.
She, along with dedicated other women, persuaded the school district to give them an old, abandoned school house in Carlotta. The battered brown brick three storey structure was in total disrepair - no working facilities, holes in the ceilings, windows broken and only one or two usable rooms in the entire building. But this eyesore of a relic had what realtors call 'good bones' - as well as wide hallways and tall windows to let in the sunlight. And, best of all, it was situated in the middle of the picture-postcard scenery that was endemic to McDowell County. Lush tree cover hills rise all around and across the street is a striking white church with a classic New England style steeple. A stream snakes behind the Center and the sound of its constantly rushing water fills the yard and soothes the soul.
With her neighbors, Franki set about making the old school house into a vibrant community gathering place. First operating out of just the kitchen and getting one rest room working, they slowly expanded to three floors and repaired most of the old building. A place that for years had taught children was now being used to instruct adults. In the not too distant past, you could find an operating day care center, filled computer training classes and packed GED courses. Unfortunately, recent budget cuts have caused the Center to scale back the popular programs; now, increasingly, they are forced to operate on a day to day basis in an effort to serve the valley's disenfranchised.
The cutbacks on Federal funds has been particularly hard on Franki Rutherford as she struggles long hours, seven days a week to keep the Center going. Still, she never waivers in her mission. Many, including Marsha and herself, have missed paychecks and none have any insurance. It is a strong, tireless band of workers, mostly women, who will not be beaten back by the nation's new priorities. Rutherford says, "There are no new Federal policies that are supportive to help new people out of poverty. The programs that we have had are being eliminated. We don't even speak to the middle class that much anymore. There is such a wide divide between the ultra wealthy and all the rest of us. And there's a few up here that are getting wealthier and wealthier. And the rest of us are getting poorer and poorer. And the ones at the bottom are barely surviving." The pain clearly registers on her care-worn face. "A whole bunch of America is sliding back."
Yet, despite these setbacks, and perhaps partially because of them, the Carlotta Center has grown into the most important institution in the Big Creek area. More than any other governmental or private effort, it has been the heart of the struggle to better the lives of the citizens of McDowell County. What started out as a small group of pioneers determined to create a safe place where people could get training, their GEDs, daycare, housing assistance and food has coalesced into something even more primal: a haven for hope.
As we enter the Center, we meet Marsha's friend and Board member, Dovena Collins. Like Marsha, she, too, was as victim of brutal domestic violence. She escaped that horror and is working to make life better for her two children, Brandon and Tabitha. Determined to be a role model for her children so they can avoid all the pain and suffering she endured, Dovena is studying hard to get her GED. In what sounds like a scene right out of an old Frank Capra movie, all three spend the evenings in their small mountain home studying together. Brandon often plays the parent and guides his mother though her homework while they sit around their kitchen table. "He's helping me out, teaching me some," Dovena says. "And I try to help him out, you know? We all support each other. That's how we always do it here in the hills."
We head to an upstairs classroom that serves as Marsha's office - a space she shares with a beautiful, dynamic young women named Kem Short. Kem, the resident philosopher and poet of the group, recently lost her home in the endless torrential floods that hit McDowell County. But that tragedy hasn't diffused her focus. A true firebrand, she has a passion for the poor and knows what needs to be done. More than anyone else in the Center, she is angry at her government for not reaching out to do more to help the less fortunate. "We've gotten to be very mean in this country," she claims, "we've gotten to be very selfish. The poor get less one percent of our federal budget. So why do we resent that one percent? When you look at the breakdown on what they spend on defense, what they spend on interior and things like that, why is one percent so resented? Why is it such a hard thing for us to do? The Bible tells us the poor will always be with us. And so that means if they're going to be always with us, somebody has got to take care of them!"
We sit in the big window classroom, listening as her indignation grows, "I think the thing that frustrates me the most in this country, is that we tout this whole thing about the American dream. But it is meant only for certain people," she says heatedly. "We take the American dream away from kids before they even get a taste of it. It is meant for those of wealth. Parents who live in poverty don't talk about dreams to their kids. If you can't pay the bills, provide the food, provide the clothing and take care of the bare necessities, you certainly don't encourage your children to dream. Because somewhere along the way, somebody is going to squash that dream." Short looks around the room as if to search for someone to prove her wrong.
Marsha nods in agreement at her desk, busily preparing the logistics for an intervention to help yet another unfortunate family - the Cooks up in Warrior Mine Hallow. They have no walls inside their house and the ceiling looks like a patchwork quilt. The sink is falling through the floor and blankets serve as draperies for windows. Timpson has arranged to have students from Davidson and Carnegie Mellon come down to repair the damage.
What makes these women so driven, so intent? What keeps them so optimistic in the face of such pessimism? They have no health insurance. Often they are not paid. Many only work sporadically as the budget is slashed in Washington. Marsha looks up as Kem Short finishes. The smile recedes from her face and there is suddenly a rare visible sadness in her eyes. "Sometime I get real resentful, bitter," she says. "It's like McDowell is the little ugly redheaded stepchild, as people say. America is ashamed to admit we exist. I think the real pain is from not being acknowledged. America no longer believes they have poor. They don't want to admit we are here. It's like we are an embarrassment, you know?"
Then she takes a deep breath and her smile reappears, bigger than ever. "I have got to get to work," she says in a firm voice. "I have students to teach how to help and love others through service."
This site was last updated 05/14/07