By Anthony J. Machcinski
Imagine graduating high school, being handed your diploma and essentially being told, “Here’s a shovel – time to go work in the mines,” without vacations, days off, holidays, for the next 50 years or so while making next to nothing. This is the everyday life of the men, women, and children who live in Appalachia.
A couple of months ago, The Observer asked for volunteers and donations for Kentucky Care and our readers responded. All three of the 53-foot trailers were filled,
from floor to ceiling with donated items. In total, approximately 108,000 pounds
of donations were given to families in Appalachia.
We at the Observer wish to extend our heartfelt thanks to all who donated. In the
words of Gino Montrone, who orchestrated the first donations to Kentucky some
26 years ago, “You’ll never understand fully until you go down there.”
With that statement in mind, The Observer wanted to extend special thanks to several
people who were able to make this possible as well as to make our readers feel just
a little bit closer to the people in Kentucky who so greatly appreciate our help.
When Gino started donating 26 years ago, he got in contact with Bill Madden, who was
the principal of a school in Cordia, Kentucky. Bill’s wife, Anita, is one of the people
who have helped to organize the project in Kentucky.
“I’ve been working with Gino for 20 plus years,” explained Anita with her warm southern drawl. “He wanted to help underprivileged people in Eastern Kentucky. He came down with one truck the first time and it has grown since then.”
Anita has amassed several memories of the project over the years, but seeing these families each day while working as a school teacher has allowed her to gauge the
reactions of people who have received the donations.
“They’re just so appreciative,” Anita explained. “They’re face just lights up when they
see the truck. I mean, it really helps out a lot of people. They just can’t afford the things that are given to us.”
At the Lotts Creek Community School, Alice Whitaker works beside Anita. Alice, who
functions as the school’s Director and lives on the school’s campus, has spent as much time with the families as Anita has.
“The need is here and the fact that the New Jersey folks were so anxious to help, it’s
been wonderful,” Alice said happily.
Those involved in the effort have seen the issues down there and understand how
truly large the need is.
Alice described the problem with firsthand knowledge: “The economy here is coal
or no coal. It’s boom or bust,” she explained. “Most people don’t even profit when there is a boom. When it goes away, it leaves devastation behind.”
In Knott County, Kentucky, where Cordia is located, the average household income
was $11,297 according to the 2000 Census. Over a quarter of the population is below the poverty line.
While many of us here in the north are barely scraping the edge of knowledge of what
its like to see friends and family members lose jobs because of failing business, Observer Publisher Lisa Pezzola was able to go to Cordia, Ky. to see it firsthand.
“They don’t have much there, but they don’t know what they’re missing,” explained
Lisa, who first got involved with Kentucky Care after being friends with Gino.
“They’re just happy about the little things. The kids around here don’t realize what they have. I ordered a pizza and they loved it. It broke my heart.”
This lack of firsthand knowledge has not stopped people from volunteering. Shawn
Riordan was one of the people who volunteered to load the trailers here in Kearny. While Shawn states his reason for volunteering as working for a good cause, one particular experience stuck out in his mind.
“One gentleman brought a box of food,” Shawn said. “He told me when he was young
in Poland that the Americans who came brought food and he never forgot it and that he wanted to give back. I thought that it was nice the way he did it.”
Next to Shawn, helping to pack the truck and accept donations was Bob Hallenbeck.
“This is the third year I’ve been able to help out,” Bob said as he began to describe
a memorable moment. “This one woman who took all the clothes that she donated and
took them to the cleaners. She said she wouldn’t give someone dirty clothes.”
While giving to the needy, especially at this time of year and during this depressed
economy, it’s really the children that have the most effect on the volunteers.
“Its just the kids, they’re my main thing,” Gino said. “A bicycle to them is just the best. We had a total of almost 50 bikes this year, from tiny to nice off-road bikes.”
Gino even remembers things as little as a tube of lipstick that was exciting
to the children.
“The children were so excited that they took the stuff while they were working and
they were on the side putting lipstick on and laughing the whole time,” Gino
remembered. “They were so excited!”
“There was one little kid that was so excited to get some cowboy boots,” Alice
explained. “He was thrilled to death with those. ‘I can dance now,’ he said to me. Little
things like that tug at your heart.”
“There’s no place to go to eat. No buses, No transportation,” Gino said. “These kids
can’t go anywhere. They’re trapped.”
While many of us in New Jersey may fail to understand the happiness that our donations will bring to the nearly 1,200 people helped by this Care, you had only to be there with the recipients to understand the impact of these gifts.
“People who benefit directly are just in tears of joy,” explained Alice. “I remember
one little lady who just had tears streaming down her face.”
While only a few people are mentioned in this piece, so many more people helped out.
“I personally want to extend our thanks to the community because they did a tremendous job,” Lisa said. “If it wasn’t for the communities, we wouldn’t be this successful, and all the time the volunteers gave…It was everyone, from the people who
helped out loading the truck, to the police who helped with traffic, people like Chief Fire Inspector Chuck Kerr who helped get furniture from people’s homes. It really was a community event.”
“They’re the heroes, not me,” Gino said. “Alice, Anita, Bill. That’s all them, plus the people that donated.”
So from Gino, Lisa, Anita, Alice, Bill, and especially all the families who suffer day by day just to get by in Cordia, Kentucky, thank you. Without you, our loyal readers and those in our community, none of this would be possible.