Val here…and feeling a story coming on.

Growing was the topic tonight for a story circle at Cowan Community Center.    The story circle was part of a partnership with Appalshop in Whitesburg.   Roadside Theater is collecting stories from across the community, particularly with young folks and will be creating a play about Letcher County moving forward.  Donna Porterfield, with Roadside Theater led the story circle and was attended by folks who are Grow Appalachia participants that grow and sell at the Farmers Market.

The center, a beautiful wooden octagon, was designed with square dancing in mind, but tonight it seemed to be the perfect space for folks seated in the middle of the room to share their stories about growing food and farming.  The weather had forced a cancellation earlier and was threatening tonight. The crowd was small, but intimate.

Ben Fink, Creative Placemaking Project Manager at Appalshop, offered the topic and helped coordinate.  Honestly, I was not very excited about getting out on a cold, wet night to “tell stories.”  It would be so much easier to read stories on Facebook from the comfort of home.   I was all for it happening, I just didn’t think I needed to be a part of it.   I was wrong.

First, a story circle is much more about listening than telling.  With a dozen people in the circle, we each got our turn to tell our story based on the prompt, “growing.”   Phones were set to shake, soup bowls were cleared and our task was to listen.   We weren’t even allowed to comment on another’s story, simply listen. We did not have to agree, just listen.  We were cautioned to not be thinking of what our story would be, but to listen to others’ stories and have faith, that when our time came, our story would come also.

Our first story was from Chris Caudill, and he shared his story about “growing up” and the time in the garden with his grandparents and father, the impact that had on his life and how he honors that by gardening today, how his garden has grown from a hobby to larger scale and still growing.    Shane Lucas also talked of his deceased father who passed away two years ago.   He says he feels closer to him in the garden than anywhere else.   He always picks that bean that was missed because his father would expect him to.    Nell Fields shared stories of growing up and the impact the Cowan Community Center had on her life, sharing that when a community member, Mary Lou Fields, reached out to her to bring her children to the center and volunteer her time, she could not refuse.   She talked of the feeling of pride as a young, new mother in being sought out as worthy of helping others.   And help she has.   Nell also made a strong point that her mother had shared with her that she took to heart: we don’t have control over homes that children are born into that may be less than, and not based on income, but children not having what they need at home, but we do have control over the community those children live in.   Nell has made her/our community better.     Debbie Adams shared her stories of growing up and now in growing gardens with her family.  Debbie was at the market every day it was open in 2015.    She has a vision and a dream, she wants to do even more this year, she wants to can and market her produce.   Debbie is genuinely happy when others in our community grow, realizing when one grows, we all grow.  Ted Ratliff, local bee keeper, made a special effort to be here, bringing pictures from home.   Ted has travelled the world, had many careers including the military, but chose to live in Letcher County because he believes the ‘best’ people are here.    We know there are good people everywhere, but how nice to believe you are surrounded by people you can count on.   Brandon, a young VISTA shared his connection to gardens and hopes for the future.    Each of us had our turn, hearing stories and connecting in some way.    It was nice to have variety in our circle, hearing stories from Jamie, a granddaughter of a Holocaust Survivor and the impact that had on her upbringing.   I don’t know that I’ve heard that story in person, I benefitted from that account.    We heard from Ben, and his family dynamics in Connecticut, maybe saying it differently, but the same struggles.    Amy in West Virginia and the growth in her hometown that she knows is a good thing, but looks and feels foreign to her now.    Donna sharing about growing up on a family farm and then moving when the new highway 81 brought growth but took part of the farm and her family moving to an apartment.    I talked about growing pains, and sometimes the growth isn’t easy or even wanted.    It feels like Letcher County, EKY is having growing pains now, but hearing the stories tonight, I know it’s nothing we can’t handle.

There were common threads, hard times being one of them, but still continuing to grow in each new situation.    Gardens were always talked about with a reverence, only rivaled by bee keeping.    Each story teller gave honor to the past, but were hopeful of new growth.

Nell talked about the growth of Cowan Community Center, the new partnerships, renewed partnerships and particularly about the new growth that Grow Appalachia brought to the community.   What the meaning of the word community and how broad that can be.   How although our circle needed a better balance of youth, the importance of age, history and experience can be too, and that we feel the best results will come when all are represented and work together.

I’ll wrap up the story circle and say if you have the chance to join one, do that and even if there is not a formal story circle, practice listening, I know I need to.

The story circle was not my only experience with listening today or growing, I was part of a tour of the high school where a community kitchen will be happening this summer.    Harry Collins, Educator and Letcher County Extension Board Chairman gave a tour of the facility to folks from Appalshop.   He shared the story of the proposed kitchen.   A great partnership has grown with Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, Inc. and Mike Caudill, CEO.  MCHC is making the kitchen available for the community to use as a commercial kitchen.   The kitchen will have many purposes, but the driving force is to promote agriculture in our community.    Our plans grew some legs today, when the incorporation documents were shared, CANE, Inc. is official now.   We will be Raising CANE in Letcher County-Raising Community Agriculture and Nutritional Enterprises.

Harry is a wonderful storyteller and shared his family history which included his grandparents raising 11 children, with income from first coal and then a poultry farm with 10,000 chickens.   That was not a typo, but we had several chicken farms here raising that many chickens.    They had a deal with Campbell’s Soup to raise the chickens.    He says his family did very well with that.   We will be having a poultry workshop on March 12th, with Jacqie Jacobs, UK to share best poultry practices, but we’ll be sharing those stories of our history as well.   Harry shared how agriculture was a part of our industry decades ago, surprising all by sharing that rice patties were operational here.    Who knew?   I find comfort and assurance in knowing that agriculture history is here, that it is in our DNA.   Even when I grew up, there were three meat processing facilities here, surely with the resources we have today, we can do what our ancestors did decades ago.

The kitchen tour was being recorded by WMMT Making Connections News out of Appalshop, there was clatter in the background as a bay of kitchen equipment was being delivered for the kitchen.    Through growing a partnership with Letcher County Public Schools, the City of Whitesburg, Cowan Community Center and Grow Appalachia, equipment for the kitchen was coming in.   It is not shiny and new and some may have to be carted out, but 6 double ovens, 3 commercial refrigerators, a cooktop stove, 3 large mixers, a grinder, 2 steam kettles, a tilt skillet, numerous tables and warming trays, shelves and tables, pans and racks, etc. will be delivered this week.    Yes…through MCHC we wrote a grant for shiny new equipment. That wasn’t funded, but this will work and how good we can feel about recycling equipment from schools in Letcher County for a new kitchen to serve Letcher County and beyond.    Much thanks to Grow Appalachia and all for making that happen.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see growth, when you are so involved.   It was nice to hear stories today to see the big picture.    There is so much growing to do, but we are growing.   Wishing that all of our partner sites see their growth and appreciate those baby steps.