Being born and raised in Tazewell County in Southwest Virginia, I know first-hand the struggles and challenges that living in a coal mining community can have on every aspect of human life.
A nearby town in McDowell County, W. Va., also knows the challenges of this lifestyle all too well. War, a once booming coal mining town and the place to go in the 1940s, is now a ghost town due to the trickle-down effect of losing the major economic sector of the community.
On the first weekend of April, I traveled with 15 Bonner Scholars from Emory & Henry College to War to assist Big Creek People in Action’s (BCPIA) annual spring carnival. BCPIA is a non-profit organization that serves the community of McDowell County.
War is a small, tight-knit community with very limited activities. The carnival is a time for everyone to come together and spend time with their friends and neighbors. The games, coordinated by Bonner Scholars, included Wheel of Fortune, basketball and beanbag toss. As a new Bonner Scholar, my greatest reward from serving at the carnival was seeing the smiles on the children’s faces as they received their prizes. A cakewalk at the conclusion of the carnival provided bonding time for the Bonner Scholars. It was a great time for us to act silly, dance and sing to our modern “hip-hop” music, and win the remaining cakes left over from the carnival.
The night following the carnival, the Bonner Scholars made dinner, which included homemade lasagna, salad, garlic bread and brownies. While dinner was in the oven, sixteen of us played STARPOWER, a game reflecting on how socio-economic status affects social dynamics, decision making and power. The game caused us to consider whether it was best to put yourself first or invest in others, hoping they would help you in return. However, our favorite part of the night was painting the words, “Emory & Henry College Bonner Scholars” on what we call the “Bonner Hall of Fame,” a wall in the BCPIA community center that also displays writings of Bonner Scholars from other colleges, such as Notre Dame, The University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Tusculum College, George Washington University, Mars Hills College and Loyola University Chicago.
On Sunday, before returning to Emory, the Bonner Scholars toured War and the surrounding area. During the tour, we visited Tipple Bottom, a place of great devastation, caused by years of ongoing flooding that only occurs 1-100 to 1-500 years. Flooding of this magnitude, along with the recent deforestation along the mountainsides, meant all running water and debris from the mountaintops landed in Tipple Bottom. The effects of the flooding are far from over as some residents still struggle to get their lives back in order.
We ended our tour at the beautiful Berwind Lake, which came under attack because of outstanding debt owed to the landowners. After a few species of endangered mussels were discovered in the lake, the proposal to demolish the lake was overthrown and War was granted permission to keep it.
I thank the people at Big Creek People in Action for making us feel welcome and for taking the time to familiarize us with the community, and I look forward to serving there again.