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Kentucky Care moves along

By Karen Zautyk
Senior correspondent

Last week, Americans learned that  $1.9 million worth of computers donated by the United States to the schoolchildren of Iraq ended up sitting in  an Iraqi port, where a senior Iraqi official then auctioned them all off for a mere $50,000.

It’s stories like this that have soured a lot of folks on long-distance charity. That’s unfortunate, but the Kentucky Care project currently being sponsored by The Observer is designed to alleviate any misgivings about giving.

Photo by Karen Zautyk — Volunteers form human assembly line to load trailer with donated items bound for Kentucky.

“When we lock that truck,” said publisher Lisa Pezzolla, “we know where it’s going. And we’re the ones who open it up when we get there, to make sure that the donations get into the right hands.”

What she’s talking about is the massive 53-foot-long trailer which now sits in The Observer parking lot and will be heading down to Knott County, Ky., in a few weeks, filled with food, clothing, household goods, toys, furniture, you-name-it, contributed by Observer readers. This year’s collection began Aug.12, and the trailer appears to be at least two-thirds full already.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays only, from 2 to 6 p.m., volunteers are in the lot, accepting the donations and loading boxes into the vehicle and stacking them floor to roof. (Please make sure all your donations are boxed. Thank you.) It’s a solid wall of cartons in there.

On the collection days, there is also a steady stream of traffic into the lot (please be alert!), as readers deliver their donations. “Some people have come three, four, five times,” Pezzolla said. “And there are more and more every year.”

This is the third year The Observer has been involved with the project, but Kentucky Care is actually much older. It was launched 20 years ago by Gino Montrone, who still organizes everything and ensures delivery of the items.

Montrone, having made a success in business, wanted to give something back in gratitude for his good fortune. But he wanted to give back to this country. So he started doing research, and he found that Knott County, in the Kentucky Appalachians, was one of the poorest in the nation. Montrone got the name of someone in the local school system down there and phoned them. “They thought it was a prank call,” Pezzolla said. But Montrone explained and then traveled to Knott County and met the people and forged a bond.

Pezzolla flew down to Kentucky a couple of years ago and was deeply moved by what she encountered. The living conditions can be abysmal. And life in the mountains can be isolating.

“Some people have never even been to a store,” she said. “They don’t even know what size they wear.” Part of her job when she was in Knott County was to be a sort of “personal shopper,” helping the folks pick out the right clothing for them and their families.

Poverty plagues Knott County as much today as it did when Montrone “adopted” it. According to the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 30.2% of the county’s population of 17,126 lives below the poverty level. The average per capita annual income is $11,297.

A 2006 PBS “Frontline” report on Appalachian Kentucky noted that “the region’s overall population is becoming an older population as a result of a falling birth rate and an exodus of many of its best young workers.” The best and the brightest who manage to get a high school diploma often flee the poverty-stricken mountains and hollows, where employment opportunities are nil anyway.

And now, the people of Appalachia are even being deprived of the natural beauty that had surrounded them. Coal companies, “improving” upon strip-mining, are practicing something called mountaintop removal. Which means exactly that: Leveling each mountain from the top down. Removing it. Until it’s virtually flattened. Additionally, the process is polluting the streams and rivers, foes of the process report.

Kentucky Care cannot cure Knott County’s ills, and it doesn’t promise or expect to. But it can sure help alleviate them. And can you put a price on the smile of a child who is getting his first good winter coat? Or her first pair of snow boots? Or their first real toys?

The Kentucky Care trailer and volunteers are waiting for your donations. See the notice on p. 18 of this week’s paper for a list of the items that are needed.

And rest assured that they all will be delivered directly to people who desperately need them.

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