In 2015, Cassidy Wright-Hubbard was a seventeen-year-old sophomore at Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland, Kentucky. Raised in Harlan, she was dually-enrolled in high school and college studying for her art degree. But she needed an income and jobs in the area are few and far between. Most people in her shoes would get out of dodge. The brain drain from southeast Kentucky for motivated young people had been well documented, but Wright-Hubbard didn’t want to go. She’d been forced to relocate away from the mountains once before due to family changes.

“I could just feel my mountain roots being ripped away from me,” she said, on a recent panel at the 2017 Appalachian Studies Conference at Virginia Tech. The panel focused on how difficult it is for Appalachian young people to find the resources they need to stay in the communities where they were raised.

Then she heard about Higher Ground, a program made possible by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a federal-state partnership established by Congress in 1965 to to promote the economic growth of 420 Appalachian counties and more than 25 million people. Technically, her job would be as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a program funded through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which is the umbrella organization of all our national service programs. Wright-Hubbard was overjoyed. Because of the position, which provides a monthly stipend, health insurance and a lump sum to be used towards higher education, she would be able to stay after all.

Appalachia-focused grants in the crosshairs of Trump’s budget cuts

In the sprawling list of proposed budget cuts released Thursday, President Donald Trump proposed eliminating funding for 19 independent agencies — both the ARC and the CNCS are on that list. Wright-Hubbard and her community in southeast Kentucky, which has a high concentration of AmeriCorps members and benefits substantially from ARC funding is dismayed.

“The loss of AmeriCorps and ARC would do nothing but harm our nation,” said Wright-Hubbard, listing all the local health, education, childcare and community programs in her area that are funded by ARC or made possible by AmeriCorps members. That’s not to mention the thousands of jobs.

“I think both of these programs are vital to America and the Appalachian region to ensure prosperity and positive change,” she said. 

Robert Gipe, a writer, professor and Wright-Hubbard’s supervisor at the Appalachian Program of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College that works to connect the community to the college through Appalachian culture and help people in what were once the coalfields feel comfortable in higher education, agrees.

Higher Ground was born because of the Appalachian Regional Commission — each year the ARC brings students engaged in sustainable community development work together in Washington, D.C. to present their work to ARC staff and to each other at a conference which always helps spark innovative new ideas.

Robert Gipe holding Cassidy Wright-Hubbard’s son (Photo: Cassidy Wright-Hubbard)

Wright-Hubbard is just one of many young people who have been able to gain employment, professional skills, and a deep sense of meaning and connection because of the program and the benefits offered by AmeriCorps.

Besides providing jobs for young locals, Higher Ground has profound effects on the economic and social fabric of the community that would be sorely missed if eliminated — it organizes festivals and conferences for youth, including an art series and the ‘It’s Good To Be Young in the Mountains’ conference, which brings together young people from throughout the Appalachian region to share stories, skills, and how they are dealing with the struggle to stay.

AmeriCorps VISTAs like Wright-Hubbard have also taken the lead in organizing cultural events that have brought community people into contact with visiting artists like the George Ellabration, a festival of music, art and literature celebrating the Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon and the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange.

VISTAs have also organized drives to collect feminine hygiene products for young women without access to them, gotten involved in theater work designed to raise awareness about needle drug abuse, highlighted the impact of clean needle exchanges and conducted college success workshops. The ARC has supported the work of Higher Ground by helping VISTAs travel to present work at drug abuse conferences and a regional conference organized by the governor of Kentucky.

“This project has been critical in helping us build a network and audience for our conferences and festivals. [It] has led directly to people coming to Harlan County to learn, have a good time and spend money,” said Gipe.

“Participation in these projects has turned into leadership positions, paying work and an escape from despair for many a young person I have known,” he added.

Gipe also points out that the number of distressed counties in Appalachia has steadily declined since the establishment of the ARC and the organization has done critical infrastructure work like road building, sewer plant construction and construction of clinics and hospitals. One of its programs called Silicon Holler is focused on offering Appalachians skills like coding and software and website development and internships which can turn into high-paying jobs that make great options for Appalachians who want to stay in their homes and work remotely.

“This coordinated approach to developing a robust tech sector is making Appalachia more economically competitive across the nation and across the world, wrote ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl Gohl in the organization’s most recent newsletter.

Through its POWER Plus grant program, which just turned one year old, the ARC channeled $73 million to diversify the economy across 236 coal-impacted communities. With the help of a POWER grant, a local foods distribution network throughout Central Appalachia called the Central Appalachian Food Enterprise Corridor has become able to connect farmers in Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to customers and distributors eager for their wares.

Unlike many other granters, the ARC emphasizes leadership by the region for the region and getting people in the region to work together to come up with their own sustainable economic development ideas — rather than relying on outside aid or infrastructure.

“The ARC has been so important in connecting those of us who are here for the long haul, enabling us to learn from each other, to do for ourselves and to grow based on our assets,” said Gipe. “No entity has ever focused so much intelligence, energy and good will on the Appalachian region as a whole.” 

Wendy Wasserman, director of the ARC communications and media relations, said that the organization has received no official communication from the Trump administration about the forthcoming budget proposals that may impact the Commission but that it will continue to work towards its mission “to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth” in the region as long as it is able.

Some say positive change ‘can’t happen’ without AmeriCorps

To the east in West Virginia, other communities that rely heavily on the presence of ARC and AmeriCorps are also eager to express their support for the endangered programs.

“I’ve seen AmeriCorps help change lives in West Virginia,” said Sarah Riley, director of High Rocks Educational Corporation, who oversees a 34-member AmeriCorps State and National Team in southeast West Virginia. The program focuses on youth empowerment in the state.

“It’s made possible programs in areas like health, education, local food, and child welfare that have lasted for years and allowed West Virginians to live happier, healthier, and more connected lives,” she added. 

When a flood hit last year and devastated the region Riley serves, AmeriCorps members were at the forefront of relief efforts. Members mucked out more than 60 homes, sorted more than 125 tons of donations and coordinated more than 1,050 volunteers.

AmeriCorps members are often young people who want more opportunities but are struggling to find them. The program offers a cheap way for organizations to find willing staff and for a young person to gain professional experience. Members are offered debt relief on student loans, a crisis crippling many young people in Appalachia. Such relief members earn through their service enables them to move on with their lives and freely bring their gifts into the lives of our communities and the economy.

Britt Huerta works with Riley supervising three AmeriCorps members–plus she’s a former AmeriCorps member herself.  Born in the northeast but a graduate of West Virginia University, she stayed in the region because of opportunities offered to her. She’s currently serving with High Rocks, where she staffs an inclusive youth space for middle school and high school students to engage in art, STEM, music, entrepreneurship and recreation in free educational programming — the idea being that meaningful enrichment coupled with caring adult mentors helps to facilitate youth to thrive in their communities and schools.

“What people must realize is that many, if not most, change-making and service providing organizations in the state of West Virginia are doing what they do with the help and teamwork of AmeriCorps members,” said Huerta. “It can’t happen without them.”

Emma Copley Eisenberg (@EmmaEisenberg) is a writer living in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Salon, Slate, The New Republic, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. 

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.