As an AmeriCorps VISTA working at Berea College, I am often asked by our VISTA coordinator to attend different workshops and professional development meetings. As a VISTA, my duty is to say, “As you wish,” and go wherever I am asked. Often I say yes without many (or any) questions, jumping at the chance to get out of the office for the day and go on a scenic road trip through Eastern Kentucky. This is what happened about two weeks ago when I was asked, along with my fellow Berea VISTAs Jeffrey and David, to travel to Pine Mountain, Kentucky and meet with Wendy Spencer, the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The CNCS is the federal agency in charge of AmeriCorps, so I said, “Cool!” put on my VISTA shirt, and departed in a Berea van last Monday. I learned that we would be speaking to Spencer before attending a SOAR Committee Meeting. I’d never heard of SOAR before, but I was informed that there would be food, so I was all for it.
When we arrived at the charming and picturesque Pine Mountain State Resort Park, there was an excited energy in the air. Enthusiastic program directors twittered over Jeffrey, David, myself, and three other VISTAs who were also in attendance. We VISTAs were the youngest people in attendance, all in our early twenties surrounded by older, professional-looking men and women. They wore suits and skirts while we were decked out in our AmeriCorps polos and slacks. That didn’t seem to offend anyone, though. In fact, they all seemed especially interested in us. Soon enough, I started to realize how excited I was. When Wendy Spencer arrived with several of her Washington staffers, we were all asked to speak for 3-5 minutes about ourselves and our service program. I was about to explain Grow Appalachia to the AmeriCorps uber-boss, someone who had been appointed by President Obama and unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate. I spoke as coherently and passionately as I could (I hope), and Spencer, a very invested and down-to-earth person herself, responded eagerly, seeming pleased with all of us. All of the professionals there (who knew what the heck was going on) were full of positive energy, and there were brief mentions of a big announcement to come during the SOAR meeting, of which we would be an integrally involved.
At the meeting I learned that SOAR stands for “Shaping Our Appalachian Region”. Its Co-Chairs are prominent Kentucky politicians, Republican U.S. Representative Hal Rogers and Democratic Governor Steve Beshear. I knew that the Governor and Congressman would be in attendance, and that I would even get to meet them briefly, but I didn’t know in what context or why. I soon realized we were attending a very in-depth, procedural meeting involving prominent Kentucky figures—a meeting of which we would be a small, but important part.
SOAR was created last winter as an initiative aimed at enabling Eastern Kentucky to address its many challenges, especially in the face of a declining coal industry. As a Kentucky resident for the past four years and a member of Grow Appalachia, I am well aware of the region’s problems, and like many people, have learned not to expect solutions to come from political figures. Appalachia often seems like a land forgotten and neglected by the rest of the country, even by our own politicians. There have been programs in the past of many different scales that have tried to help, but many have failed, or just run out of steam. Doubtless this is what many are thinking of SOAR at this very moment.
However, and maybe this is because I was at that meeting and possibly taken up in all the grandeur, but I got a different vibe from this particular program. There was no bickering–only constructive discussion. The tone was formal but not severe, and every person involved seemed to really believe in the project’s potential. The highlight of the meeting was a presentation by the U.S. Assistant Director of Commerce for Economic Development, Jay Williams. He had been the mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, a city which had experienced many problems similar to those faced by Eastern Kentucky towns in the late 20th century. Youngstown had once been an industrial center for steel production. However, many of its steel mills closed down over time and the city faced severe economic downturn. But Williams spoke of the Youngstown 2010 project, started in the early 2000s, that aimed to leave the city’s steel heritage behind and forge its own future with a diverse and modern economy. He spoke of the proven and the possible, and he believed in the SOAR project so much that he signed off on a grant of $312,000 for SOAR, provided by the Economic Development Agency.
The SOAR meeting helped me to believe, or at least hope, that Eastern Kentucky is already starting to turn the tide. I suddenly felt like I was in the midst of that change by working at Grow Appalachia. Never had I felt such a clarity of purpose in my life before. Later, Wendy Spencer stood to speak and announced a $1 million dollar grant to SOAR through the employment of 52 VISTAs throughout Eastern Kentucky. That even seemed to surprise the bigwigs—Hal Roger’s let out a genuine, “Oh! Wow.” The VISTAs in attendance were asked to stand up and be recognized as examples of those already working in the region, and I finally understood the reason for my presence at the meeting. I smiled and tried my best to seem proud of my work. And I was. I am.
Later we met with the Governor and Congressman, shook their hands, spoke with each of them for a bit, and took pictures. I was then asked to do a quick video interview with WYMT, a local news station. I again tried my best to be coherent and passionate, and I think the video turned out okay. Beyond that, a picture of David, Jeffrey, and myself was posted to the official AmeriCorps Facebook page. It was a nice 15 minutes of fame for me. But I am more excited for the time to come with Grow Appalachia. I later found out that Grow Appalachia’s director, David Cooke, is on one of the working groups for SOAR, and that we will be hosting a listening session in Berea next Thursday. I have eagerly volunteered to help, and I pass on the web address for SOAR here, so you can look up listening sessions in your area if you are interested. I am cautiously optimistic about the efforts of SOAR, and I believe that although there is always the danger of unfulfilled promises, there is little danger in the prospect of hope.