Friday, April 3, 2009


Tuesday was the most grueling day of the trip. We spent the entire day in nearby Tolllesboro, working with People’s Self Help Housing. This non profit company builds and renovates low cost housing in Lewis County. Substandard rural housing is a problem affecting Appalachia as a whole. In 22 Kentucky counties, over 10 percent of all occupied residences were considered substandard according to the 1990 Census. In 2002, the proportion of homes lacking proper plumbing still exceeds the national average. For example, in a Tennessee county, while 79 percent of all households owned their own homes, 7.7 percent of all houses lacked proper plumbing, much higher than the less than 1 percent national average. While this has happened, federal funding for for rural housing programs has not kept up. It is in the face of figures like these that People’s Self Help Housing serves the people of Lewis County. We worked on two houses for the day. Both had experienced severe water damage due to water coming up through the foundation. Our job was to dig a foot deep trench from the house to the drainage ditch by the side of the road. Then we laid down PVC pipe and covered it back up. So much for not being asked to dig a hole and fill it right back up huh? In fairness I suppose there was a pipe in it. Even with 6 of us working on the job, it was hard work but it was certainly necessary. When we finished the first trench, we knocked a hole to release the water. There was literally a gushing torrent of water that didn’t stop for 35 minutes!

I wasn't kidding about the amount of water

Besides bringing to life the rural housing issue, the day brought out yet more themes and values of the region. The two that stood out were neighborliness and sense of humor of the people. During our lunch break we were able to interact with the crew. We had packed the ingredients to make our own sandwiches while they had gotten hot food from the local eatery. They were quick to offer it to us, insisting we have their fried chicken and potato salad. Like many of the encounters with the Appalachian people I had over the week, the offer was made with sincerity. It wasn’t a token offer made with the unspoken expectation that we wouldn’t accept it. I’m sure had we said yes, they would gladly have split the meal with us.

The actual work that they did also spoke to Appalachian neighborliness. It turns out some of the men on the crew live in homes that themselves need renovating. Yet here they were laboring over someone else’s project while their own needed attention. Upon reflection, I realize this is the ultimate definition of neighborliness. It’s one thing to help the less fortunate, which has its own virtues. It’s another to help another while you are in their place. It’s sort of the mantra of Christianity’s Golden Rule of “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). These men live that code and the region is known for it. One could look at it as an extension of the familial bond that runs so strong in the region. The people seem to treat everyone like family whether they just met you or have known you for 20 years. Opposed to my own neighborhood where I may exchange a greeting with someone who lives down the street from me, these people take the role of neighbor to heart and live out the responsibilities that come with it.

That brings me to the other theme of the day: sense of humor. In the face of the hard work that they had to do and the seemingly unending amount of it in the county, the men were always ready with a joke. I know that my group was too tired from digging to string coherent sentences together but here were these men laughing it up like they were sitting around a poker table. Most of the jokes were at the expense of each other but you could tell it was because they genuinely liked working with and respected each other. True to Appalachian form, they would often sprinkle scripture into their jokes. At one point one of the men came up to us and asked us if we had ever heard of the scripture passage about the blind man leading the blind. We responded that we were familiar with it. He then pointed to his supervisor and said loudly "well if you keep following that blind man there he'll lead y'all right into that there ditch!". Like Jones says about the Appalachian sense of humor, I couldn't help but think that their humor helps them weather hard times. And while John the supervisor wasn't pompous, he was an authority figure and they certainly schemed to "get his goat" by playing practical jokes on him as Jones puts it.

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